Understanding EU politics isn't easy at the best of times. But an important debate is on-going about the future of biofuels in Europe, and in member states.
Thanks in part to the efforts of ActionAid supporters, there is growing recognition that the use of food crops to fuel cars is having a range of negative impacts. They are driving food prices higher, fuelling land grabs in developing countries - and many of these biofuels will not reduce any greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions compared to fossil fuels they are replacing. Only industry remains largely in denial.
So the European Commission recommended that current food-to-fuel biofuels should be capped at 5%. Whilst there are many loopholes in this proposal - and ActionAid would like a cap set at 0% to cover all biofuels that are specifically grown on land - it is a step in the right direction.
But the question remains, if we don’t want to use land-based biofuels, what are the alternatives? The UK is still obliged under EU legislation to find 10% of transport fuels from renewable energy by 2020. One option is electric vehicles – both vehicles and trains – always assuming they are powered by renewable electricity.
ActionAid commissioned the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) to also look into sustainable alternatives from more advanced biofuels that potentially could be available by 2020. These alternatives require a new technology and are not currently in commercial production. But one of their greatest advantages is that they can be produced from domestic wastes and residues, some of which is discarded. In short, these feedstocks do not directly use land or food crops.
Clearly, the UK needs to be producing a lot less waste; but there is potential for using, for example, food and other biological waste to produce biogas; and ethanol from agricultural straw as a substitute for petrol.
The IEEP report found that this domestic wastes could contribute over 3% of UK transport fuels in 2020. Under EU laws, they are allowed to count double (ie over 6%) towards the UKs 10% transport target. Together with electric vehicles, this could get us a long way towards the target.
This is always assuming they are produced sustainably, both in terms of volumes extracted and their environmental and social impact. Many of these wastes and residues already have existing and better uses; for example in the board or paper industries where effectively the carbon is locked away.
But the sustainability of these feedstocks is still not assured and ActionAid is demanding that the UK government undertakes a series of actions before we embark on greater use of wastes and residues. ActionAid is therefore not endorsing any particular advanced biofuel feedstock or technology.
But the upside of moving towards these sustainable biofuels is that they would create green jobs, potentially up to 10,000 by 2020. They have much better GHG savings compared to conventional biofuels, and they wouldn’t push up food prices or fuel land grabs because land and food are not directly involved.
Sustainable and domestic biofuels will always be in limited quantities. One of the most efficient and quickest ways to reduce our dependence on oil and save greenhouse gas emissions is to have much greater fuel efficiency in vehicles. But first we must wean developed nations off their thirst for food-to-fuel biofuels; the G8 in June is the next opportunity.