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SPECIAL REPORT-Europe finds politics and biofuels don't mix
July 5, 2010 / 10:57 AM / 7 years ago

SPECIAL REPORT-Europe finds politics and biofuels don't mix

* 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 (Reuters) - The messages are tense, angry, cajoling.

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 petroleum.

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 farmers.

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 about.”


PDF of Demarty’s letter of 11 Dec. 2009 including his handwritten addition:


Graphic showing biofuel use versus targets: here

Global biofuels production: here

European consumption of biofuels in 2008: here ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^>


Like many such tales, this story begins with good intentions.

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 of Germany.

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.

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