February 25, 2013
Oxfam has long been concerned that increasing production of biofuels pushes up food prices, encourages land grabs and in many cases increases rather than reduces dangerous greenhouse gas emissions. Within the GROW campaign, we are fighting to end policies promoting biofuels and threatening food security and the climate. This issue was in the spotlight in Brussels last week. Marc-Olivier Herman of Oxfam’s EU Office presented Oxfam’s concerns in the European Parliament and monitored a discussion of European Energy Ministers on a review of the EU biofuels legislation.
The conference room in the European Parliament was packed last Wednesday. Not a single spare seat to be found behind those reserved for the members of the Environment and Industry Committees who have started to work on a change in European biofuels legislation. MEP assistants, industry lobbyists or NGO representatives who arrived late had no other option than to stand through three hours of gruelling presentations from experts who have modelled the impacts of Europe’s insatiable thirst for biofuels on global land use, food prices and carbon emissions, and of debate on what to do about it.
It’s hard to summarize years of data crunching by whizzes in a few lines but really it boils down to some pretty hard truths. First, food-based biofuels made from rapeseed, palm, soy or other vegetable oils are more polluting than fossil fuels because they displace agriculture onto new land which previously stored lots of carbon. Biofuels made from corn or other cereals save some emissions because people and animals eat less as a result of an increase in food and feed prices. As a result, less new land is turned over to agriculture to compensate for the crops used to produce biofuel and less carbon is released into the atmosphere because of land use change. What was the conclusion according to the experts? The best way to fight climate change is not to use more but less biofuel. “Reducing the biofuel ambition is the most direct way to limit additional land use emissions,” declared David Laborde from the International Food Policy Research Institute. Similarly, cutting back on biofuels is needed to avoid food price rises. To avoid competition between food and fuels, “the simplest policy is to stop subsidizing and mandating biofuels,” concluded Ronald Steenblik of the OECD’s Trade and Agriculture Directorate.
Following Steenblik’s advice would allow Europe to reallocate the billions it spends on food-based biofuels to truly sustainable transport policies. The European Commission took a first timid step in this direction last October when it proposed to limit the share of biofuels from food counting towards the binding EU-wide target of 10% renewable energy use in transport by 2020. That sounds like a return to sanity to anyone remotely interested in good governance. But to the biofuel industry representatives on the panel, this is madness. If Europe gives up on biodiesel, it will enslave itself to Russian President Putin and his country’s oil, warned Raffaello Garofalo of the European Biodiesel Board. So even measuring land emissions from biofuels is a bad idea, he said, as it would tarnish the image of the industry. For e-Pure, the European ethanol lobby, the solution is not to scrap biofuels mandates, but to create new ones: a mandatory 10% share of bioethanol in all petrol by 2020. What’s more, no one should be worried about anybody going hungry as a consequence because the industry produces feed as a by-product. “The European ethanol industry approximately adds as much food into the food chain as it consumes” Thomas Gameson of e-Pure told MEPs after putting a pellet of “high protein GMO-free animal feed” into his mouth. “Cows find it delicious!” he added choking and gasping for water.
Two days later, European Energy Ministers met in Brussels for their own discussion of the new European biofuels policy. In the complex European decision-making system a qualified majority of Member States and the European Parliament must agree on the new legislation. In a letter to Energy Ministers before the meeting, Oxfam and a wide coalition of environmental and development organisations had asked them to stop incentivising technologies that undermine global food security and climate change mitigation by endorsing a genuine and robust cap to limit the use of land-based biofuels and agreeing on a trajectory to gradually phase out all support to them. As I listened to the speeches of the Energy Ministers on Friday morning, then, the big question was whether they would follow the advice of the experts and NGOs or cave into industry pressure. As the meeting unfolded and I listened to the Energy Ministers explaining their country’s position, it was clear that many of them had been listening to the biofuel industry rather than reading the reports of the experts. I hope they were rewarded with high protein GMO-free animal feed for lunch.
Fortunately, some demanded a more sustainable policy. “To me it seems a terrible waste of money and food to promote biofuels which are more expensive than fossil fuel, and which do not create significant greenhouse gas savings and in some cases seem to have even higher emissions than fossil fuels,” said Danish Minister Martin Lidegaard while calling for a tighter limit on food-based biofuels and correct greenhouse gas accounting.
No decisions have been taken yet. In the weeks that follow, to avoid Members of the European Parliament and national Ministers getting distracted by industry gimmicks, Oxfam will be reminding them what their decisions will mean for the millions of people going to bed hungry around the world each night.