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Europe prepares to admit that biodiesel is worse than fossil fuels

The European Commission is reportedly close to admitting that imports of biodiesel made from crops such as palm oil, soybean and rapeseed cause more greenhouse-gas pollution than fossil diesel.

According to the website EurActiv, which tracks European political news, numbers in a leaked commission impact assessment suggest these biofuels’ effect on climate could be as bad as oil from Canadian tar sands.

Once officially recognized, this inconvenient truth would set politicians at loggerheads with a biodiesel industry that their own renewable fuel directives helped to create.

Scientists and non-governmental organizations have repeatedly pointed out that Europe underestimates biofuel carbon emissions. Calculations don’t take into account the fact that when biodiesel crops are planted on agricultural land, forests and wetlands elsewhere are cleared to produce the food crops that the biodiesel edged out.

The effect of this ‘indirect land use change’ (ILUC) is tricky to calculate, but scientists now think it wipes out any carbon-emissions savings made by avoiding fossil fuels, as reports from the commission’s Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy, and at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington DC, have pointed out.

The chart below, from an October 2011 article in Nature Climate Change, illustrates this: figures for ‘direct’ emissions come from the EU 2009 Renewable Energy Directive, and the added ILUC emissions from an IFPRI draft report. (The orange and grey dashed lines show the threshold for a 50% and 35% emissions saving compared with fossil fuels — at the moment, biofuels have to certifiably deliver a 35% saving under EU law, but this is set to increase by 2018).

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Source: Nature Climate Change 1, 389–390 (2011).

According to the EurActiv story, the European Commission will officially accept such assessments when it makes legislative proposals on biofuels and ILUC in the spring. When the commission reviewed its fuel directive recently, it proposed classifying oil from tar sands in Canada as producing 107 grams (g) of CO2-equivalent gases per megajoule (CO2eq/MJ) of energy — worse than crude oil’s 87.5 g CO2eq/MJ. Leaked figures suggest that biodiesel from palm oil, soybean and rapeseed will be classified close to tar-sands oil, at 105, 103 and 95 g CO2eq/MJ, respectively.

That’s not to mention the other ethical and environmental harms of biofuels, such as displacement of indigenous peoples, and destruction of the rainforest, as pointed out by the London-based Nuffield Council on Bioethics last April.

Now what? “Politicians are trying to find an impossible compromise of maintaining the biodiesel industry that they created, while taking account of indirect emissions,” says Robbie Blake, a spokesperson for Friends of the Earth, an environmental advocacy group based in Washington DC. According to Nature Climate Change, one middle-ground solution might be not to penalize biodiesel, but to reward producers for practices that mitigate ILUC (by using biofuel by-products as animal feed, or by encouraging better-integrated farming systems).

ENDSEurope reported on 26 January that the issue, which has created a rift between the EU energy and climate departments, has gone up to the office of commission president José Manuel Barroso.

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