Growing crops for fuel was once seen as part of the solution to climate change. Now, many environmentalists worry that enthusiasm for biofuel could be part of the problem. As passions for and against biofuel have ebbed and flowed over the last three years, they have raised painful questions about how the European Union uses science.
Internal emails and previously unpublished documents obtained from the European Commission through freedom-of-information requests by European Voice undermine the Commission’s claims to be a dispassionate policymaker. They show that two Commission departments tried to prevent the publication of independent research that reached unfavourable conclusions on the EU’s policy on biofuel. They show that a Commission department based a research study on a flawed assumption casting biofuel in a favourable light.
In each instance, the contentious handling of research was accompanied by fierce inter-departmental wrangling that raises doubts about the Commission’s ability to make policy.
The controversies stem from the European Council’s declaration in December 2007 that by 2020 Europe should get 10% of the energy it uses for transport from biofuel.
At the time, the encouragement of biofuel was regarded as having three advantages for the EU – giving greater energy security, helping the agriculture sector and combating climate change. Both the first two advantages depend on the extent to which biofuel is home-grown or imported, but the third became increasingly contentious as the EU’s climate and energy policy was developed during 2008.
At the European Council of December 2008, national leaders declared that Europe should get 10% of its transport energy from renewable sources. Such were the controversies about biofuel that the extent to which the EU would rely on biofuel was left an open question.
On the face of it, getting energy from (renewable) crops is less damaging to the climate than burning oil or gas. But policymakers have had to assess all the greenhouse-gas effects of biofuel production, including, for instance, the use of fertilisers and transport.
Early on, one of the charges made against biofuel was that areas of rainforest are being destroyed to make room for growing biofuel crops – direct land-use change.
More difficult to measure (and to counter) is indirect land-use change (ILUC), for example, when biofuel crops displace food crops on farmland, so that forests or grassland are converted for growing food crops. In January 2008, the Commission presented a proposal for a draft law on renewable energy as part of its flagship legislation on climate and energy. An internal row between energy and environment officials was resolved only at 2.30am on the morning of publication of the draft law when the Commission’s secretariat-general deleted a reference to ILUC.
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But the questions did not go away. In February 2008, a study appeared in the American journal Science, suggesting that, because of ILUC, US maize-based ethanol caused more greenhouse-gas emissions than it saved. This was followed by the official publication of a study by the Commission’s internal research unit, the Joint Research Centre (JRC), which identified ILUC as a problem. MEPs and some EU member states – Germany, the Netherlands and the UK – pressed for green safeguards to be included in the EU’s draft law.
The final text of the law did include measures to guard against direct land-use change, forbidding biofuel whose production involved the clearance of rainforests or peatland. In addition, biofuel marketed in the EU has to provide greenhouse-gas savings of at least 35% when compared to fossil fuels, a threshold that will rise to 50% by 2017.
But the renewables law left out any specific mention of ILUC. The EU agreed that the Commission should investigate ways to minimise indirect land-use change and come up with an ILUC factor, an off-the-shelf value for each kind of biofuel that would be used to calculate its emission effects. The Commission was given until the end of this year to complete the work. The energy department, which is in charge of implementing the renewable energy directive, had hoped to finish a report on ILUC by March but has missed this deadline. Commission departments are still at loggerheads over the size and importance of ILUC.
The climate-action department shares responsibility for ILUC, by virtue of fuel-quality laws. In addition, the Commission departments for trade and agriculture and the JRC have been asked to contribute studies on ILUC. Around 4.5 million hectares of land could be ploughed up around the world by 2020, according to the JRC study. But a study from the trade department came up with a lower estimate of 800,000- 1 million hectares of land-use change by 2020.
Meanwhile, the Commission’s energy, environment, agriculture departments had become bogged down over the environmental costs of biofuel policy to date. Commission officials spent 17 months arguing over one study by consultants that had been commissioned by the environment department. Officials from other departments insisted that parts of their report casting biofuel in an unfavourable light should be removed from the report.
Bas Eickhout, a Dutch Green MEP, who has read the documents, says that the emails raise questions about the Commission’s ability to draw up a report that reflects the science. “The vested interest to keep the 10% target alive is so important to some of the DGs that they are willing to ignore the scientific studies, and that is quite astonishing to see.”
He is urging Günther Oettinger, the European commissioner for energy, to “intervene and correct his civil servants”.
Last month Oettinger signalled that he would not rule out “corrective action” on biofuel policy. Connie Hedegaard, the European commissioner for climate action, has yet to intervene.
Christophe Bourillon of the European Bioethanol Fuel Association (eBio) dismissed the concerns as groundless. He said: “I don’t know of any other topic that has been looked at in such an open and transparent way.”
Biofuels were subject to more investigation than any other power source. “With regard to ILUC, we are being asked to show we are whiter than white,” Bourillon said. “ILUC is still very much a theory. You can make a study say whatever you want.”