Food for Thought

By Robert Vierhout | August 04, 2008
European Union regulators are still debating a rather complicated and detailed set of rules on how to promote and use renewable energy in transport. The discussion on biofuels sustainability criteria began more than a year ago, triggered by concerns at the parliamentary level due to a proposed law on fossil fuel emissions standards, which some politicians suspected would result in high volumes of imported biofuels from tropical areas. An unholy alliance of environmental non-governmental organizations and the food industry, concerned about pressured profit margins, started campaigning against biofuels, calling for a worldwide moratorium on their production. Failing that, they called for the highest possible sustainability standards.

Their campaign was supported by oil industry life-cycle analysis showing not only poor greenhouse-gas savings but a negative energy balance for non-sugarcane ethanol. The final piece of the anti-biofuels jigsaw was "evidence" of devastating land use changes. For some, the Searchinger, et al study, "Use of Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land-Use Change," was the ultimate argument to declare biofuels dead. The research undermined the clear thinking of many European politicians.

Those who embrace this not-so-rigorous science seem to forget that land use change effects are not a new phenomenon.

The perfect storm against biofuels occurred when agricultural commodities prices increased. The result was an incredibly biased discussion on the impact of biofuel production on food availability and food prices by international bodies such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the Food and Agriculture Organization. Some non-governmental organizations, vested interests, media and politicians happily joined in.

For more than a year we have seen one hostile report after another followed by negative and damaging media coverage. However, the tide is turning. More people are now convinced that the bigger evil is fossil fuel. A crude oil price of more than $140 per barrel has not missed its effect on fuel and food prices. Transport emissions also keep rising. Something needs to be done to curb this, and biofuels are the only short-term solution, which more people seem to realize.

Fewer than six months ago a majority of EU politicians called for scrapping the proposed EU mandatory target of biofuels (10 percent by 2020). These voices have now become a minority, but the political debate is not over. The price to be paid for keeping the target is an ever-growing number of rules/criteria on environmental and social-economic sustainability. In the European Parliament 1,500 amendments on the Renewable Energy bill has been tabled, of which an overwhelming majority is on biofuels. What we see is a
kind of number-throwing contest on greenhouse gas savings, penalties for land use change effects and the level of the biofuels target that needs to be achieved by 2020.

In all of this there is at least one potentially positive thing. If biofuels must meet a long list of sustainability criteria, why then not apply similar criteria to crops grown for food, feed, fiber or fuel? It shouldn't stop there: if Big Oil clears land for drilling or shaking up the seabed should we then not apply sustainability criteria as well?

Did all those non-governmental organizations, food industry groups and politicians open a Pandora's box, or will biofuels become the first truly sustainable sector setting a standard that other sectors have no option but to follow? I am convinced that one day the biofuels industry will be heralded as the industry that brought about true environmental change. That's food for thought.

Robert Vierhout is the secretary-general of eBIO, the European Bioethanol Fuel Association. Reach him at vierhout@ebio.org