Bio Battle

November 26, 2012 | 00:00

Bio Battle

It is one of the most striking about-turns ever made by the environmental movement – and by the European Commission. They have collectively turned against biofuels made from food crops. It does sound like the Right thing to do. But is it?

The new regulatory biofuel proposal that the Commission launched in October sends a stark message. In the words of Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard: "first-generation (i.e. food-based) biofuels are not the future in Europe".

How times have changed. Only a few years ago the EU did its utmost to promote biofuels, including first-generation ones, as alternative for oil in road transport (incidentally: not only because of the climate, but to help European farmers as well).

However, under the new proposal – which has still be to be accepted by the European Parliament and the member states – food-based biofuels are to be "capped" at 5% of the EU's transport mix in 2020. As these biofuels in fact already account for 4.75% of the EU's transport mix, this means that as far as the Commission is concerned, further development of first-generation biofuels should be halted altogether. According to the Commission, member states should cease all public support for food-based biofuels after 2020. Instead, "second-generation" or non-food based biofuels should be promoted and supported.

The reasons for this policy change have everything to do with the bad press that food-based biofuels have been getting in recent years. They have been blamed for high food prices and for the disappearance of tropical forests in developing countries. They have also been accused of not making any net contribution to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Hence, everyone who considers himself or herself as "concerned with the fate of planet earth", has now turned against them.

But are these biofuels really as bad as people make them out to be? André Faaij, professor at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, and one of the world's leading experts on bio-energy, emphatically disagrees. In fact, according to Faaij, the current worldwide campaign against food-based biofuels is totally misguided.

In a fascinating interview with freelance energy author Loes Knotter for EER, Faaij argues that many of the claims that are being made by the opponents of first-generation biofuels are not based on facts. In particular he cites one article in Science Magazine written by Timothy Searchinger ("a law graduate who has no scientific background on the subject") as a source of many misconceptions.

What is more, Faaij says that many NGO's know that their campaigns against food-based biofuels are not based on fact – they admit this in private, but, he says "they simply keep campaigning for reasons of media exposure".

Unfortunately, notes Faaij, it appears that now the European Commission has also decided to ride the wave of the popular backlash against food-based biofuels. Faaij warns that the Commission's new policy proposals, if enacted, will not do anything to help put the biofuels industry on a sustainable course. On the contrary, they will only lead to more oil, coal and gas being used, he says.

Surely this is a crucial issue for the future of the world, which deserves to be considered and debated very thoroughly and carefully. We are glad that we can make this modest contribution to the debate.


Speaking about public debates, the article we published last week by Ellen Cantarow, "Frack Fight", which gives an environmentalist's perspective on the shale gas battle going on in upstate New York, led to a lot of negative reactions from people in the energy industry who support shale gas production. I mean not just the content of the article, but the fact that we published it. Gentlemen, please, we believe it is wise not to bury one's head in the sand. What Cantarow's article shows is how many people out there, outside the energy industry, experience the expansion of fracking. If you think her piece is misguided, please explain to us why, and share your insights with us. That will be more effective than simply dismissing her article as unworthy of consideration.


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