From: The Guardian -19/04/2008
The European commission is backing away from its insistence on imposing a compulsory 10% quota of biofuels in all petrol and diesel by 2020, a central plank of its programme to lead the world in combating climate change.
Amid a worsening global food crisis exacerbated, say experts and critics, by the race to divert food or feed crops into biomass for the manufacture of vehicle fuel, and inundated by a flood of expert advice criticising the shift to renewable fuel, the commission appears to be getting cold feet about its biofuels target.
Under the proposals, to be turned into law within a year, biofuels are to supply a tenth of all road vehicle fuel by 2020 as part of the drive to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 20% by the same deadline.
The 10% target is "binding" under the proposed legislation. But pressed by its scientific advisers, UN authorities, leaders in Europe, non-government organisations and environmental lobbies, the commission is engaged in a rethink.
"The target is now secondary," said a commission official, adding that high standards of "sustainability" being drafted for biofuels sourcing and manufacture would make it impossible for the target to be met.
Britain has set its own biofuels targets, which saw 2.5% mixed into all petrol and diesel fuel sold on forecourts in the UK this week. The government wants to increase that to 5% within two years, but has admitted that the environmental concerns could force them to rethink. Ruth Kelly, transport secretary, has ordered a review, which is due to report next month.
A commission source indicated that the EU executive would not object if European governments ordered a U-turn.
"This is all very sensitive and fast-moving," said a third commission official. "There is now a lot of new evidence on biofuels and the commission has become a prisoner of this process."
The target is being strongly criticised by the commission's own scientific experts and environmental advisers to the EU.
"The policy may have negative impacts on soil, water, and biodiversity," said Professor Laszlo Somlyody, who led a team of climate scientists analysing the policy for the Copenhagen-based European Environment Agency, which advises the EU. "This can lead to serious problems," he told the Guardian.
His report, published last week, calls on Brussels to freeze its biofuels policy because of the potential risks to the environment. "The over-ambitious 10% biofuel target is an experiment whose unintended effects are difficult to predict and difficult to control," the scientists found.
In March last year, European leaders sought to seize the global moral high ground by backing the commission's climate change package aimed at making Europe the world's first low-carbon economy. In January, the commission fleshed out the details of the measures, based on a carbon trading scheme which is to supply the bulk of the cuts in greenhouse gases.
But since then there has been a torrent of expert reports citing biofuels as part of the climate change problem.
This week, Jean Ziegler, the UN's rapporteur on the right to food, dubbed biofuels "a crime against humanity" because they allegedly divert food from the poor to provide fuel for the rich.
"The diversion of crops to fuel can raise food prices and reduce our ability to alleviate hunger," warned a 2,500-page analysis of global food trends from UN agricultural scientists.
While Germany recently announced a retreat from its biofuel policies, Alistair Darling, the chancellor, asked the world's wealthiest countries to assess the impact of biofuel development on the food crisis for a G7 summit this summer.
An ad hoc group of EU experts will meet next month to wrangle over the sustainability criteria to be entered into the legislation. The commission is proposing that the overall impact of biofuels - produced from biomass from rapeseed, corn, sugar cane or palm oil - results in carbon dioxide cuts of 35% compared to fossil fuel equivalents.