Questions about biofuels can alter Europe’s policies

Questions about biofuels can alter Europe’s policies
A top European farm official has suggested that yet-to-be-released studies by the European Commission co­uld be used to “kill” heavily prom­oted and subsidised biofuels by focusing on their total environmental impact.

The suggestion, written in the margins of internal correspondence seen by The International Herald Tribune, could foreshadow a further retreat from the biofuel-friendly policies that the commission once called crucial in the fight against climate change.

The industry has already been dogged by contentions that the main justification for policies supporting biofuels — that they are greener than fossil-based products — is unsound. Many environmental advocates claim that a large number of fuels grown from crops do not merit public subsidies or production incentives.

European governments agreed in December 2008 that only biofuels that reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 35 per cent compared with fossil fuels should qualify for meeting the trade bloc’s present goal.

But at the time, the governme­nts directed the commission to in­vestigate indirect land use change and, depending on the findings, to decide whether any changes needed to be made about which biofuels counted toward the goal.

The commission’s studies are intended to determine the volume of emissions created when forest or land is cleared to replace food production lost to biofuel crops. Converting land can release large amounts of greenhouse gases when vegetation is cleared. Plo­wing also exposes carbon stored in the soil to the air. In the lumbering jargon of emissions experts, these effects are known as indirect land use change, or ILUC.

In a memorandum, Jean-Luc Demarty, the top civil servant in the agriculture department at the European Commission, wrote to a colleague in December “an unguided use of ILUC would kill biofuels in the EU.”

His words suggest that most of the models in the studies used for calculating emissions would rule out fuels made from crops, at present, produced in the Europe­an Union. That, he added in the handwritten note, “is probably the objective” of those who oppose in­centives for some forms of biofuels. Demarty declined to comment on Thursday, but other officials did not dispute the authenticity of the note.

In the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency has concluded that a number of biofuels would still meet emissions limits even after land-use changes resulting from increased biofuel demand. But in the case of corn-based ethanol, the agency said that manufacturers would need to use “advanced efficient technologies” during production to meet American limits.

In Europe, commission officials are seeking to protect influential agricultural and industrial interests while maintaining a credible climate policy. A spokesp­erson for the European Comm­ission, Marlene Holzner, declined to comment on what she termed internal working documents.

A group of environmental act­ivists and lawyers made the Eu­ropean Commission document av­ailable to IHT this week. They contend the studies will support the case for using fewer biofuels and want the commission to release them. Transport and Environm­ent, a non-profit group based in Brussels, first requested that the studies be released nearly four months ago.

Holzner said the request’s “wide scope” meant it was “not possible to check all the relevant material” within the normal deadline for releasing documents. Under European Union rules, the commission has an obligation to respond to information requests, but may not necessarily grant them. Holzner, however, said a “first batch” of studies should be made available next week.

European governments agreed in December 2008 that only biofuels that reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 35 percent compared with fossil fuels should qualify for meeting the trade bloc’s present target.

—International Herald Tribune

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