Biofuel targets could undermine the environmental benefits

Greenhouse gas savings are a key reason for the European Union’s target for 10 per cent of transport fuel to come from renewable energy by 2020. Member states’ renewable energy plans indicate that nearly all of this quota will be in the form of biofuels.

Biofuels have been criticised because of their industrial production methods. When governments classify land as “marginal” to justify its use for agro-industrial biofuel production, this deprives rural communities who depend on such land and nearby water supplies.

An EU expansion in biofuel use will trigger widespread change in the use of land, especially in the southern hemisphere, thus undermining the supposed benefits from substituting biofuels for oil. EU policy justifies the target as essential to stimulate the development of second-generation biofuels. These are meant to unlock the energy potential of non-edible plant material, avoiding conflicts overlanduse and greenhouse emissions. But even if second-generation biofuels become commercially viable, they will not ease the commercial pressures extending agro-industrial monocultures and deforestation.

Moreover, expectations for a future techno-fix perpetuate the drive to expand biofuel production and growth in demand for transport fuel. The biofuel case illustrates the contradiction between sustainability goals and market-driven growth. This contradiction is inherent in the EU’s drive for a “knowledge-based bio-economy”.

Our EU-funded study, examining several agricultural-environmental issues, suggests that Europe could take other pathways to a bio-economy by relocalising production and consumption patterns. This would mean lowering targets for renewable energy in transport fuel, while replacing external inputs with local resources for agricultural production. Only then will a bio-economy be truly “sustainable”.

Les Levidow is co-ordinator of the Co-operative Research on Environmental Problems in Europe project. He co-authored its reports on the European bio-economy and agro-fuel crops and a paper on EU biofuel policy (see Research leading to these results received funding from the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme under grant agreement number 217647.