According to a new study released this week, the European Union (EU) plans to increase its use of biofuels over the next 10 years and it will require 69,000 square kilometers of new land causing climate change to become worse. “Driving to Destruction” was commissioned by a coalition of environmental and development NGOs and the study reports that by 2020, 90 percent of the 9.5 percent of biofuels will come from food crops.
“Biofuels are not a climate-friendly solution to our energy needs. The EU plans effectively give companies a blank cheque to continue grabbing land from the world’s poor by growing biofuels that fill our cars rather than their stomachs,” said Laura Sullivan, ActionAid’s European Policy and Campaigns Manager. “Europe’s energy policies are putting millions of people in danger and threaten Africa’s fragile food security.”
The global biofuels community is not taking the report lying down. “As a matter of record, our industry has always welcomed the debate about biofuels sustainability in large part because the alternative – more oil – is by definition unsustainable,” said Bliss Baker with the Global Renewable Fuels Alliance (GRFA). “However, NGO’s that use this debate as an opportunity to stoke fears and sell memberships in their organizations do a disservice to us all.”
According to the report, an area over twice the size of Belgium will need to be converted into biofuels plantations putting poor communities in danger if European countries use industrial biofuels to meet their renewable energy targets by 2020. Even more, the report claims that when indirect land use change is taken into account, a highly contested theory, biofuels will emit an extra 27-56 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year – the equivalent to an extra 12 to 26 million cars on Europe’s roads by 2020. Lastly, the report states that under the plans, 5 countries will be responsible for three quarters of all extra emissions. The UK, Spain, Germany, Italy, and France are projected to produce the most extra greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels.
Baker continued, “The research is chalk full of allegations disguised as facts. The report repeatedly makes statements as if they are facts such as ‘…the EU plans WILL result in the conversion of up to 69,000 sq. km of land for the use of biofuels.’ Sounds ominous but for the one word “upto.” It could be 1 square kilometer that gets converted. The point is they don’t know how many kilometres will be converted (if any) and predicting it with any degree of confidence has yet to be demonstrated anywhere.”
Baker continued by explaining that many of these ILUC models make critical assumptions such as keeping crop yields static despite the fact that yields in many parts of the world have doubled over the past 20 years. Many models, Baker says, for simplicity sake, assume that trees will live forever (they assume this because it is too hard to calculate the capturing and release of carbon over the life cycle of a forest). These are the kinds of very detailed assumptions that must go into making these calculations. No where do they list the assumptions that went into the models for these calculations. He also notes that “there is no rationale argument you could make that would withstand any level of scrutiny that would suggest large numbers of trees would be cut down to make room for new biofuels use in Europe.”
“As far as the science of ILUC is concerned, the academic work on modeling land use change impacts is very much in its infancy and is an incredibly complicated exercise,” explained Baker. “I know that does not work well for “bumper sticker” campaigns like the one being launched but it is true. Several leading scientists have raised serious questions about the ability of these models to predict for example the impact of crop rotations in Southeast Asia as a result of increased biofuels production on the other side of the world. That is what these models are attempting to do and there are more unanswered questions about the science of ILUC than there are answered questions. So basing public policy decisions on science that is at best questionable would be irresponsible.”
Baker concluded, “In short, the Global Renewable Fuels Alliance agrees with the scientific community that the science of ILUC is unpredictable and raises more questions than it answers.”