* Environmental damage from land use change sparks debate
* Commission split over science behind biofuel goals
* Scientists disown reports they say were doctored
* Has Brussels tweaked studies to fit pro-biofuels policy?
* New German Commissioner hints at change
By Pete Harrison
BRUSSELS, July 5 The messages are tense, angry,
Written between 2008 and January 2010 and sent between
lobbyists, scientists and high-ranking European civil servants,
they hint at the intense emotions in the debate over one of
Europe's most contentious environmental issues: the use of
biofuels, long touted as an alternative to carbon-emitting
But it's not how the emails are written that's important.
It's what's in them -- and the fact that if it were not for
transparency laws, Europe's citizens would be unaware of how
vested interests have influenced the science behind a
cornerstone of the continent's clean energy policy.
One of the mails calls the evolving science of biofuels
"misleading"; another "arbitrary". In one, sent last November, a
European civil servant calls an attempt to quantify the damage
from biofuels "completely flawed and incomplete". Lobbyists pick
holes in the evidence, using graphs, charts and tables. A
worried official warns against "financial consequences" for
Most damaging for the European Commission is a leaked letter
from the head of its own agriculture unit, Jean-Luc Demarty, in
which he refers to mounting evidence that biofuels do serious
harm to the climate. Unless handled carefully, Demarty writes,
that scientific perspective could "kill biofuels in the EU".
That it could. Read in their entirety, the documents --
emails, letters and research reports released after Reuters
invoked transparency laws -- not only expose a huge rift in
Brussels over biofuels policy, but also undermine Europe's
ambition of using alternative fuels to wean the continent off
oil. Beyond this, they raise serious questions about whether
some European Commission officials have deliberately skewed the
findings of scientific studies to fit their policies.
It's a war that pits the European Commission's agriculture
experts against its climate experts, and Europe's auto and
farming lobbies against environmentalists. The bottom line is
this: Europe -- committed to a goal of using biofuels to power 7
percent of its road traffic by the end of this decade -- is
seriously questioning the fuel's use. That means the future of
biofuels elsewhere must also be under threat, which will have
huge implications not just for the way we tackle climate change,
but for everything from the price of land, chemicals and
commodities to foreign aid.
"I think it's outrageous the Commission is hiding the
science behind climate policy," says Tim Grabiel of ClientEarth,
a group of activist lawyers who have sued the European
Commission for greater transparency on the issue. "The science
generally confirms this is something we should be worried
PDF of Demarty's letter of 11 Dec. 2009 including his
Graphic showing biofuel use versus targets:
Global biofuels production:
European consumption of biofuels in 2008:
AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH
Like many such tales, this story begins with good
Two years ago, Europe mandated that by 2020, 10 percent of
transport fuels must come from renewable sources. Of that, some
70 percent would come from biofuels -- those made from the oil
of plants such as palms, soy beans or rape seed, or ethanol
brewed from crops like wheat, sugar cane or sugar beet. Designed
to help Europe cut carbon emissions to 20 percent below 1990
levels by the end of this decade, the plan foresaw a $17
billion-a-year biofuels market. Europe, the bloc's leaders said,
would lead the world away from carbon dioxide-emitting oil.
But even as European leaders committed themselves to that
ambitious goal, questions were growing over how green biofuels
really are. Environmentalists warned that promoting them might
encourage farmers to rip out food crops or burn and clear
forests to grow cash crops that could be turned into fuel. That
could leave the world's poor with even less food and actually
add to the amount of carbon dioxide we emit.
"When citizens are filling up their cars with biofuels, they
have the right to know whether they are encouraging
deforestation on the other side of the planet," says Grabiel.
"These studies really contain the answers to those questions,
and this is what our lawsuits seek to reveal."
The basic assumption with biofuels is that plants absorb as
much carbon dioxide while growing as they release when burned in
an engine. If you use them as a fuel, their net impact on the
climate is close to zero, except for emissions from farming
machinery and fertilisers.
But this doesn't take into account a relatively new concept
that scientists drily call "indirect land use change". Put
simply, if you take a field planted with grain and switch that
crop to something that can be used to make a biofuel, then
somebody will go hungry unless the missing grain is grown
elsewhere or farming yields are massively improved.
The rush to biofuels means the quantities of land needed are
huge. Satisfying the EU's demand alone will require an
additional 4.5 million hectares of land by 2020, according to
Reuters calculations based on an average of 15 of the studies
for the Commission. That's an area roughly equal to Denmark.
Burning forests to clear that land -- which in theory could
be found anywhere around the globe -- would pump vast quantities
of climate-warming emissions into the atmosphere, enough to
cancel out many of the theoretical benefits the biofuels are
supposed to bring in the first place. EU sources say an upcoming
report will point to a one-off release of around 200 million
tonnes of carbon due to land-use change from biofuels, paid back
slowly as the fuels do their job over the following centuries.
That one-off release is roughly the annual fossil fuel emissions
As this inconvenient truth became apparent, obfuscation over
the science increased. By the start of this year, more and more
people were asking whether the EU had committed itself to
biofuels before the science on them was settled.