BRUSSELS A European Union target to promote the use of biofuels will accelerate global species loss because it encourages the conversion of pasture, savanna and forests into new cropland, EU scientists have warned.
The finding raises fresh doubts over the benefits of biofuels, which were once seen as the most effective way of cutting road transport emissions, but whose environmental credentials have increasingly been called into question.
The scale of species loss in areas converted into new cropland could be more than 80 percent, the scientists from the European Commission's Joint Research Center (JRC) said in a newly published report.
"This result shows that the extensive use of bioenergy crops will increase the rate in loss of biodiversity," the report said.
One of the report's authors stressed that the finding was based on a preliminary analysis of the issue and that more research was needed to accurately quantify the likely impact on biodiversity caused by the EU's biofuel mandate.
"This is only a very rough estimation... but at least it raises the issue, and sends a warning that this should be taken into consideration," the JRC's Luisa Marelli told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"If we had found that only 10 percent of biodiversity would be affected, then that would be a very low number considering all the uncertainties, but the number is much higher," she said.
LAND USE CHANGE
The JRC report was based on the findings of another study on the land use impacts of the EU's biofuel target, prepared for the Commission by the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
IFPRI calculated that the EU target would lead to a global increase in cropland of more than 17,000 square km -- about half the area of the Netherlands -- primarily in Brazil, sub-Saharan Africa and former Soviet Union countries.
Environmental campaigners warn that cropland conversion in biodiversity hot spots such as Brazil's cerrado -- or savanna -- could increase the pressure on endangered species including the giant anteater and maned wolf.
"The world faces two major environmental disasters -- climate change and the loss of biodiversity. Biofuels, once thought of as a solution, are contributing to making both these crises worse," said Robbie Blake, biofuels campaigner for Friends of the Earth Europe.
Modeling exercises carried out by IFPRI and others have also suggested that the land use impacts of the EU target -- both direct and indirect -- could wipe out most of the predicted emissions saving from biofuels.
But such models are intrinsically uncertain, and biofuel producers and other critics have argued that the scientific uncertainties are still too great to use them as the basis for changes to EU policy.
An internal debate is currently raging within the Commission on how to account for land use changes in biofuels legislation, which sets a mandatory EU-wide goal for increasing the share of biofuels in road transport to about 10 percent by 2020.
The Commission was not immediately available for comment.
(Editing by Anthony Barker)