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Europe: Biofuels ‘no magic wand but useful anyway’

europe-flag2.jpgDo you know what a magic wand is? Yep, Greenbang too. A black stick with a white tip favoured by magicians and the fella who owned
Sooty for performing tricks with. What a magic wand is definitely is not: biofuels. At least that’s the verdict of Mariann Fischer Boel, Member of the European Commission responsible for Agriculture and Rural Development.

She told a recent conference that biofuels “are not a magic wand with which we can wave away all our problems. But they are a valuable new tool for the policy toolbox”. Biofuels, particularly in Europe, have been in for all manner of flack, so it’s good to see the EC examining all sides of the argument.

Boel’s speech tackles objections to biofuels one by one – here are some highlights that in Greenbang’s opinion are well worth a read.

The first objection is that using first-generation biofuels in many cases supposedly does not cut greenhouse gas emissions. It’s true that some biofuels don’t show clear benefits. So let’s simply not use them! On the other hand, most biofuels do actually offer benefits compared to fossil alternatives.

Typically, biodiesel made from European-grown rapeseed makes a greenhouse gas saving of 44 per cent compared to fossil fuels. The typical figure for ethanol made from sugar beet is 48 per cent. I could cite other very positive values.

Under the rules proposed by the Commission, a given biofuel would count towards a Member State’s target only if it made a greenhouse gas saving of at least 35 per cent compared to fossil fuels. That’s a very healthy difference. And the standard applies both to domestic production and to imports.

Let’s be clear that, when calculating this saving, we do propose to take into account the value of by-products such as animal feed.

This is the right thing to do. If we don’t get the feed as a by-product, we will simply use feed produced conventionally. And of course, conventional production needs both land and energy!

And believe me: our farm sector is crying out for feed at reasonable prices! If you doubt that, go to an agricultural show in Europe and talk to the farmers, as I have already been doing this year. Their message could not have been clearer.

The second objection to the 10 per cent target is that it will mean destructive land conversion. In other words, to make way for energy crops, those with an eye for profit will supposedly clear away valued forests and grasslands – along with the animals that live there – or release carbon from land with high carbon stocks.

The Commission recognises these dangers and has proposed the following: no biofuel would count towards a Member State’s usage target if it does not meet strict sustainability criteria. For example, this would exclude biofuels coming from:
• land with a high biodiversity value; or
• land with high carbon stocks.

Once again, these constraints would apply both to domestic production and to imports.

The final objection to the 10 per cent target is all about the supposed impact of biofuel policy on commodity prices.You know the basic argument: that more biofuels means painfully high prices, and therefore less food for the poor.

I should say straight away that price increases are not always a bad thing. European farmers have been waiting for prices to stop declining in real terms for two decades or more! And higher prices can be good news for the between 70 – 80 per cent of the world’s poorest people who live in rural areas and rely on farming for their livelihood.

Of course, very high prices can cause problems. But it’s not fair to make biofuels a scapegoat for the extreme market movements of recent times.

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