EU Energy: We need to understand the truth about biofuels
Zac Goldsmith, Conservative Member of Parliament for Richmond Park, writes about the ethical problems arising from the growing use of biofuels within the European Union.
Once regarded as a potential panacea, the reputation of biofuels has taken a justified pounding over recent years. As a new report from Oxfam highlights, the uncontrolled expansion and use of biofuels has led to unsustainable changes in land use, such as the destruction of rainforest to make way for the production of crops.
I therefore strongly welcome the recent joint statement by the EU climate commissioner, Connie Hedegaard, and the energy commissioner, Günther Oettinger, that they want to cap the use of crop-based fuel. They said “our clear preference is biofuels produced from non-food feedstocks, like waste or agricultural residues such as straw...These new types of biofuels are not in competition with food, nor do they require additional land. We are pushing biofuels that help us cutting substantial CO2 emissions, do not compete with food and are sustainable and green at the same time."
It is also worth recognising the potential benefits of such “advanced” or “second generation” biofuels in reducing carbon emissions from transport. Already London-based firms such as Proper Oil and Uptown Oil are collecting waste vegetable oil to be refined into sustainable biodiesel. German airline Lufthansa has recently signed a collaboration agreement with Australian biofuels company Algae for construction of a large-scale plant to produce aviation biofuels from algae.
However, in tandem with more support to promote the development of sustainable second-generation biofuels, there needs to be binding sustainability rules for existing first-generation biofuels currently competing with food crops for land and resources. The impacts of indirect land use change (ILUC) - the term used when production of biofuels on existing agricultural land results in the displacement of production on to previously uncultivated land - must be urgently addressed at a European level through the introduction of ‘ILUC factors' (specific greenhouse gas defaults applied to biofuel types) into the sustainability criteria of the Renewable Energy Directive and Fuel Quality Directive.
One of the most concerning findings of the Oxfam report is that unsustainable biofuels are contributing to the global rush for land and “land grabs”. Evidence cited from the International Land Coalition suggests that land acquisitions to grow crops for biofuels—including soy, sugarcane, oil palm and jatropha—may account for over 60 per cent of all large-scale land deals globally in the past decade. This creates a massive strain on the land, water and soil resources – everywhere, but particularly in developing countries where the rights of local communities and small farmers to these resources are rarely protected.
Until indirect land use change is included in the calculation of emissions, we are creating a perverse situation where fuels which may be more polluting than fossil fuels, are being actively subsidised by European taxpayers. We can embrace some biofuels, but there must be safeguards to ensure that they come from sustainable sources and we must address the impact of biofuel production on land use and food prices.