Feb 1, 2008 (From the CalCars-News archive)
We've said that focusing on biofuels for transportation is putting the cart before the horse: it makes sense to first displace as many miles as possible through electricity. Though we've seen warnings for several years about "food vs. fuel" and about how much greenhouse gases various biofuels actually save (not to mention the new infrastructure and technology developments required), Europe is ahead of the U.S. in taking a real look at the problem.
Here's a NY Times story previewing the emerging controversy, links to a British Royal Society study on the subject, two stories from the Wall Street Journal, and articles from European media in the wake of meetings on the subject by the European Union. (The UK's Guardian story describes divisions among environmentalists on the subject.)
January 15, 2008
Europe May Ban Imports of Some Biofuel Crops
By JAMES KANTER
PARIS — In a sign of growing concern about the impact of supposedly “green” policies, European Union officials will propose a ban on imports of certain biofuels, according to a draft law to be unveiled next week.
If approved by European governments, the law would prohibit the importation of fuels derived from crops grown on certain kinds of land — including forests, wetlands or grasslands — into the 27-nation bloc.
The draft law would also require that biofuels used in Europe deliver “a minimum level of greenhouse gas savings.” That level is still under discussion.
Currently, most of the crops for biofuels used in Europe consist of rapeseed (commonly known as canola in the United States) grown in parts of Europe, according to Matt Drinkwater, a biofuels analyst at New Energy Finance in London. Europe also imports some palm oil from Southeast Asia, soy from Latin America, ethanol from Brazil, and produces some ethanol domestically using wheat and sugar beets, he said.
The ban would primarily affect palm oil and possibly the Latin American imports.
Amid rising prices for gasoline and diesel and worries about climate change, countries around the world have started using more fuels produced from crops or agricultural wastes.
The amount of ethanol used in the United States represents about 5 percent of total gasoline consumption, according to Matt Hartwig, a spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association in Washington. Ethanol produced from sugar cane is widely used in Brazil. In Europe and to a lesser extent in the United States, vegetable oils have been converted into a type of diesel by a simple chemical procedure.
But a flurry of studies has discredited some of the claims made by biofuel producers that the fuels help reduce greenhouse gases by reducing fossil fuel use and growing carbon-dioxide-consuming plants. Growing the crops and turning them into fuel can result in considerable environmental harm.
Not only is native vegetation, including tropical rain forests, being chopped down in places to plant the crops, but fossil fuels, like diesel for tractors, are often used to farm the crops. They also demand nitrogen fertilizer made largely with natural gas and consume huge amounts of water.
Already, the draining and deforesting of peatlands in Southeast Asia — mainly to make way for palm plantations — accounts for up to 8 percent of global annual carbon dioxide emissions, said Adrian Bebb of Friends of the Earth, an environmental group.
In Indonesia, he said, more than 18 million hectares of forest, or 44 million acres, have already been cleared for palm oil developments. Environmental groups say the developments are endangering wildlife like the orangutan and the Sumatran tiger, and putting pressure on indigenous peoples who depend on the forests.
Western scientists are increasingly pointing out the need to distinguish between types of biofuels. On Monday, for instance, the Royal Society, a national science academy in Britain, said requirements to use a certain percentage of biofuels were not sufficient. Instead, the society said, there should be specific goals for emissions reductions.
“Indiscriminately increasing the amount of biofuels we are using may not automatically lead to the best reductions in emissions,” said John Pickett, head of biological chemistry at Rothamsted Research, a research center in Britain, who helped write the report for the Royal Society. “The greenhouse gas savings of each depends on how crops are grown and converted and how the fuel is used.”
Last week, scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Washington also warned that biofuel production can result in environmental destruction, pollution and damage to human health.
“Different biofuels vary enormously in how eco-friendly they are,” said William Laurance, a staff scientist at the institute. “We need to be smart and promote the right biofuels.”
Experts say certain types of fuels, particularly those made from agricultural wastes, still hold potential to improve the environment, but they add that governments will have to set and enforce standards for how the fuels are produced. With its new proposal, Europe appears to be moving ahead of the rest of the world in that task.
The draft law probably would have the greatest impact on palm oil growers in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, according to Mr. Drinkwater.
“Some developments in Southeast Asia will almost certainly be blocked by these provisions,” he said, adding that the rules would make it much harder to plant on recently deforested land or to export fuels whose production process cause significant amounts of greenhouse gases to be released.
But farmers growing corn for ethanol could also be affected, because the European rules contain provisions on preserving grasslands, said Mr. Drinkwater.
The text, which could change before European commissioners meet on Jan. 23 to adopt a final version, also emphasizes that areas like rain forests and lands with high levels of biodiversity should not be converted to growing biofuels.
The European Union does not want to completely abandon biofuels because they could still contribute to reducing Europe’s dependence on fossil fuels.
In part, that is because biofuels — a blanket term covering fuels grown from crops to manufacture substitutes for diesel and gasoline — are seen as Europe’s main weapon in lowering emissions from transportation. And transportation has the fastest growing levels of greenhouse gases among all sectors of Europe’s economy.
On Monday, in answer to a reporter’s question, an organization representing major growers of crops for biofuels in Malaysia said the E.U. should be cautious before imposing new rules. It said that farmers in the region were adopting more sustainable practices, and warned that restrictions on imports could cause trade tensions.
“The Malaysian government is very concerned about the E.U. scheme for sustainability of biofuels,” said Zainuddin Hassan, the manager in Europe for the Malaysian Palm Oil Council in Brussels. The measures “should not be a trade barrier to the palm oil industry and it should comply with the W.T.O. rules as well,” he said, referring to the World Trade Organization.
Verifying that only environmentally sound biofuels are being imported into Europe would be left to individual countries. But the draft law calls for penalties for violating the rules, like exclusion from tax breaks, to be enforced across the region.
The draft law also says that biofuels should be tracked from origin to use “so that biofuels fulfilling the sustainability criteria can be identified and rewarded with a premium in the market.”
The measures are part of a plan for Europe to implement a binding target of making 10 percent of the transport fuels consumed by 2020 from renewable sources — most of which are expected to be biofuels.
Ferran Tarradellas Espuny, spokesman for Europe’s energy commissioner, Andris Piebalgs, said that European countries that used more than 10 percent of biofuels in their transport fuel mix could use their progress to help them to reach other European environmental targets. Those include a goal of a 20-percent share of renewable sources in overall energy consumption by 2020.
Europe already has a suggested target of making biofuels 5.75 percent of fuels used for transport by 2010. But that target is not going to met, according to the draft law. Biofuels were just 1 percent of transport fuel in 2005 and, if present trends continue, would account for 4.2 percent by 2010.
Sustainable biofuels: prospects and challenges http://royalsociety.org/document.asp?latest=1&id=7366 14 Jan 2008
The Society convened a working group of leading experts to consider the science and technology prospects of delivering efficient biofuels for transport in the broader context of the environmental protection and sustainability.
The working group concluded that biofuels have a potentially useful role in tackling the issues of climate change and energy supply. However, important opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels, and to ensure wider environmental and social benefits, may be missed with existing policy frameworks and targets. Unless biofuel development is supported by appropriate policies and economic instruments then there is a risk that we may become locked into inefficient biofuel supply chains that potentially create harmful environmental and social impacts. New technologies need to be accelerated that can help address these issues, aided by policies that provide direct incentives to invest in the most efficient biofuels.
The report makes a series of recommendations about policies and research needs in order to help develop sustainable biofuels for transport LINK TO REPORT: Sustainable biofuels: prospects and challenges (Adobe PDF File, 788kb)
EU Is Planning Measures To Protect Biofuels Industry
By JOHN W. MILLER in Brussels and TOM WRIGHT in Jakarta, Indonesia
Write to John W. Miller at
john.miller@... and Tom Wright at tom.wright@...
January 23, 2008; Page A11
The European Union will move today to protect its ailing transport-biofuels industry from foreign imports with measures that would force companies to show their fuels are helping the environment more than they are hurting it, according to documents seen by The Wall Street Journal.
The biggest losers are expected to be companies in Southeast Asia that make biofuels out of oil palms they have planted after cutting down forests. Trees soak up carbon dioxide; felling them blunts the benefit of cleaner-burning fuels made from oil palms.
Separately, the EU is preparing punitive tariffs on biofuel imports from the U.S. if Washington doesn't remove a tax credit for some American biofuels exporters, according to EU officials.
The EU today also will set specific targets for renewable-energy use and will announce a plan to charge companies for permits to pollute. The European Parliament and national governments still need to endorse the rules.
The new EU law on transport fuels would force so-called green-energy companies to prove that the production and use of their fuels cut carbon emissions by at least 35% compared with production and use of traditional fossil fuels, say EU officials. The clear-cutting of forests and the use of energy guzzlers have raised fears that biofuels might do more overall harm than good.
The moves would benefit makers of the EU's biggest biofuels crop, rapeseed oil. Studies show that the production and use of rapeseed-oil fuel cuts emissions by about 37% compared with the production and use of fossil fuels. By comparison, corn ethanol, at 22%, doesn't make the cut. That would prohibit any future U.S. ethanol exports to the EU. Currently, U.S. ethanol isn't exported to Europe.
Among the companies in Indonesia that make fuel out of oil palms, Singapore-based Wilmar International Ltd., which runs a biodiesel-refining plant on the island of Sumatra, expects its exports to Europe to be hit, said spokesman Jeremy Goon. The EU draft law "creates a nontariff barrier" to trade, he said.
Asian companies are expected to be exempted if their plantations were established before 2003. Mission Biofuels Ltd., which runs a biodiesel refinery in Malaysia and is listed in Australia, said the ruling is unlikely to affect its exports to the EU. Mission buys all its crude palm oil from plantations in Malaysia that were set up before 2003, said Swaminathan Mahalingam, the company's managing director.
In 2003, the EU made a bet on biodiesel, stimulating production with tax breaks for oil companies that buy biofuels to blend with regular fuel. EU governments have been slow to force their consumers to use biodiesel, however. In fact, there is a 5% limit on how much biodiesel can be mixed with regular diesel, and biodiesel remains almost twice as expensive as regular diesel.
Europe's Biodiesel Drive Sputters Industry's Woes Endanger EU Goal For Using Fossil-Fuel Alternatives
By JOHN W. MILLER
December 27, 2007; Page A4
BORKEN, Germany -- The European Union's dream of using vegetable-based diesel fuel in cars to cut oil imports and the pollution that causes global warming is turning sour.
The bloc made a big bet on biodiesel fuels in 2003, agreeing that its governments would phase in tax breaks and rules to encourage their production and use.
The bet seemed to make sense. Most Europeans drive diesel cars, making ethanol -- the U.S. clean fuel of choice for gasoline-powered cars -- impractical. Biodiesel can be mixed with regular diesel fuel and, when blended, doesn't need any special pumps or engine-design changes.
Mirroring the U.S. experience with ethanol, European companies rushed to make biodiesel out of a range of things, including rapeseed crops and used McDonald's frying oil. Low raw-material costs and generous tax breaks meant margins were high. By last year, Europe's annual capacity to make the fuel had climbed to 10 million metric tons from two million tons in 2003.
As with ethanol in the U.S., though, Europe now has a glut of biodiesel. The world consumed only nine million tons of biodiesel last year. Europe's producers found buyers for just five million tons. The industry is in trouble, under pressure from soaring costs, disappearing tax breaks, less-costly imports and waning public support.
The trend is at odds with conventional wisdom that rising oil prices make green energy more attractive. It also means the EU risks missing the goal it set in 2003 of replacing 10% of transportation fuel with nonfossil fuels by 2020.
The 27-nation bloc, which claims to lead the world in cutting the carbon-dioxide emissions believed to cause global warming, uses nonfossil fuels for less than 2% of transportation fuel consumed.
Since January, prices for the crops that make most biodiesel have doubled, driving the cost of a ton of biodiesel up 50%, to around $1,440 a ton, or about $4.80 a gallon. Prices for regular crude-oil-based diesel have risen sharply, too, but only to $840 a ton, or $2.80 a gallon. Biodiesel has become more expensive for oil companies to buy than fossil fuel, and they are cutting back.
Green lobbies are also turning against biodiesel. They now say that growing crops for biodiesel puts too much pressure on land and food prices. In Europe, 80% of biodiesel is made from rapeseed, a distinctive, yellow-flowered crop. Environmental groups also oppose imported palm-oil-based biodiesel from countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, saying the rush to grow more oil palm trees is causing deforestation.
The combination of problems has hit producers hard. Petrotec AG, based here in Borken, Germany, makes biodiesel out of used cooking oil from McDonald's, Burger King and other restaurants. After going public last year, its market capitalization quickly climbed to €200 million ($288 million). But when the German government canceled a biodiesel tax credit in August 2006, Petrotec's share price halved, and the company shed workers.
"How are we meant to invent and develop new technology if we can't make money?" asks Petrotec Chief Executive Roger Boeing, who started the firm in 1998. He helped pioneer a technology for converting recycled oil into biodiesel, but it still isn't efficient enough to make biodiesel less expensive than normal diesel.
A prominent British company, Biofuels Corp., avoided a bankruptcy situation this year after Barclays Bank agreed to swap some of its debt outstanding for 94% of the equity in the company. The company blamed high commodity prices and biodiesel imports from the U.S. for its woes.
U.S. biodiesel producers enjoy a big tax credit from the federal government. This month, Congress voted to extend the tax credit until the end of 2010. EU producers recently asked the EU to impose punitive tariffs on biodiesel imports from the U.S., citing the subsidies as unfair competition. U.S. producers dispute the claim.
"We're still working on a big technological breakthrough to bring costs down," says Bruno Reyntjens, a manager at Proviron, a Belgian company that makes biodiesel out of rapeseed and soybeans.
Scientists say it is likely to be at least 2010 before any breakthrough is made on costs, or on producing a biodiesel than can run in regular diesel engines effectively at a much higher blend than the current standard of 5% per gallon of diesel sold at the pump. [chart]
Europe's governments are finding it difficult to adjust policy to a new and volatile market. In 2006, when commodity prices were low and margins were fat, Germany decided to trim the tax breaks it offers to biodiesel producers. Earlier this year, France raised taxes on biodiesel. Now that producers are in trouble, governments aren't giving the tax breaks back.
"It's public finances versus agriculture, and governments need money," says Kevin McGeeney, chief executive of Switzerland-based Starsupply Renewables SA, a biofuels broker. Ten EU countries, including the United Kingdom, have delayed measures to force oil companies to blend biodiesel with their regular fuel.
The Paris-based International Energy Agency has urged EU governments to cut back further on incentives to develop biofuels, saying they are too expensive.
Peter Mandelson, the EU's top trade negotiator, says the problem isn't the use of biodiesel, but producing it in crowded, high-cost Europe. "Europe should be open to accepting that we will import a large part of our biofuel resources," Mr. Mandelson said in a speech this summer.
U.S. ethanol producers are facing some similar problems. Buoyed by $7 billion a year in subsidies and a tariff on foreign imports, U.S. farmers planted a quarter more corn this year, most of it going toward making ethanol. But supply of ethanol is outstripping demand, mainly because of the difficulty and cost of transporting ethanol, which needs special pipelines. Some U.S. ethanol producers are idling production and a debate has begun over whether the pressure that ethanol production puts on agricultural land is worth the modest cuts in carbon-dioxide emissions it yields.
To bio or not to bio - are 'green' fuels really good for the earth?
The EU says we need them, some experts say they damage the planet. Who is right?
David Adam, environment correspondent The Guardian, Saturday January 26 2008
From the top of the Greenergy refinery in Immingham you can see across the Humber estuary to Hull. A hum of equipment fills the air, along with a curious smell. Popcorn.
Greenergy processes vegetable oil. It takes the gloopy juice squeezed from inside rape seeds harvested on surrounding Lincolnshire fields, strips out the waste and chemically tweaks the leftovers to make it easier to burn. Greenergy pipes almost 100,000 tonnes a year of its veggie option to ConocoPhillips and Texaco, just across the road, which mix it with their diesel fuel.
Until recently, the operation was viewed as a good thing. Because the oilseed rape plants absorb carbon dioxide, the company says the carbon emissions of the mixed fuel are lower, which helps the fight against global warming. And because oil companies that supply the blend pay less tax, everybody wins. Greenergy is expanding and similar facilities are going up elsewhere.
But now a chill wind is blowing through this emerging industry. Fuels from vegetable oil, sugar, corn and a number of other crops and plants, collectively known as biofuels, are taking flak. There are doubts about their carbon savings, and concern over their impact on food supplies, prices and the land needed to grow them. This week, a parliamentary committee called for a moratorium on efforts to increase their use. Yet on Wednesday, the EU confirmed it will force oil companies to mix biofuel into petrol and diesel, while separate UK action on climate change will make all suppliers use biofuels by April.
It is a confusing situation, which provoked New Scientist to call on the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to "determine whether biofuels are good or bad". The issue splits even the green campaigners: Friends of the Earth said this week's European move was a disaster; WWF welcomed it.
Jeremy Tomkinson, head of the National Non-Food Crops Centre in York, which promotes biofuels, says the New Scientist question misses the point. "We need people to understand not all biofuels are the same," he says. "You can't say whether all biofuels are good or bad. The challenge is to use more of the good ones and less of the others."
The Greenergy refinery illustrates the point. At the moment, the plant is running on British rape seed oil, but later in the year it will include oils from US soya beans. In the summer, it could blend palm oil from the tropics into the mix. Sometimes it uses waste cooking oil.
Like others in the oil industry, biofuel companies source their feedstocks from suppliers across the world, depending on price and availability. Greenergy has a similar biofuel facility in Rotterdam, using rape from France and Germany.
The company is also involved in ethanol, which it mixes into petrol. Most ethanol from plants comes from fermented sugar cane in Brazil, but batches can also come from sugar beet, wheat and corn, grown in different ways across different countries. Andrew Owens, managing director of Greenergy, says it takes the environmental impact into account. The company has blacklisted some suppliers, and will not buy bioethanol from the US, because of the amounts of nitrogen fertiliser required to grow the crops.
Its website says the carbon savings of bioethanol produced in the northern hemisphere, such as from another British biofuel facility owned by British Sugar in Norfolk, are "questionable". Greenergy has lined up a sugar cane-based bioethanol supplier in Africa, to combat rising demand for the Brazilian version, which is generally agreed to be the greenest biofuel around.
On biodiesel, it points out that tropical fuels such as palm oil produce less carbon-intensive fuels, because they require less greenhouse gas-fuelled effort to grow, and claims associated problems such as deforestation to start plantations are "managerial rather than intrinsic".
Owens says it tries to buy from companies which have joined the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil, an industry body that is working to green the supply chain, and inspect non-members. "I can trace our supplies through to specific farmers and plantations. I believe we're driving up standards across the board."
Owens argues that the food industry, which still takes the vast majority of palm oil, has caused more damage in countries such as Indonesia but escaped the level of criticism aimed at green fuels.
Tomkinson says the new mood against biofuels could even make the situation worse. European investors have lost their nerve, he says, and are planning to build fewer refineries. To meet increased demand for biodiesel, oil companies would have to look elsewhere. Under the UK and European regulations, Britain alone will need about 2m tonnes of biofuel by 2010. Current production is about 300,000 tonnes. (Though UK use of palm oil as biofuel is limited by our colder climate, which makes it waxy and unsuitable for engines).
It is this expansion of biofuel use that most worries opponents and critics. Even if companies such as Greenergy manage to make their products sustainable and climate-friendly - and campaigners point out that some palm oil companies registered with the Round Table have still been linked with illegal logging - how could such checks be maintained on a huge scale?
Besides deforestation, campaigners say wider biofuel cultivation could cause water shortages and increase pollution, and that converting land could release more carbon emissions than the fuels save. Scientists have questioned whether there is enough suitable land to grow sufficient crops.
There are also uncertainties over the life cycle analyses used to work out the overall carbon saving of different biofuels. Paul Crutzen, the Nobel prize-winning physicist, recently suggested that more nitrogen compounds, potent greenhouse gases, could escape into the atmosphere from fertiliser than officially counted. Some say, per tonne of carbon saved, biofuels are simply not cost-effective.
The parliamentary environmental audit committee concluded on Monday that the possible risks outweighed the benefits and that UK and European targets on biofuel use should be scrapped until their environmental advantages can be guaranteed. Tim Yeo, chair of the committee, said: "The government must ensure its biofuels policy balances greenhouse gas emission cuts with wider environmental benefits."
Andris Piebalgs, the EU energy commissioner, strongly disagreed and said the only realistic alternative was oil, which he described as "a shrinking source of energy with serious environmental concerns in regions where it is produced, that generates large amounts of carbon dioxide not only when it is burned, but also when it is extracted, transported and refined".
The UK government, this week handed down a stiff EU target to produce 15% of all its energy from renewable sources by 2020, was also in no mood to abandon its biofuel targets, which it reckons can save a million tons of carbon pollution by 2010.
Both the UK and EU say they will apply strict sustainability criteria to the new fuels, and demand audited carbon savings. Britain has created the Renewable Fuels Agency and plans to publish the results for each supplier. By 2010, it says the process will be able to link tax benefits received by the oil giants to how green their biofuels are.
The Royal Society, in a study that was more supportive of biofuels than was reported, recently gave cautious backing to the sustainability criteria, though it pointed out they were riddled with uncertainties. Friends of the Earth said the government had given people no easy way to distinguish good biofuels from bad, and that indirect effects, such as people being displaced from land seized to grow crops, were not assessed.
Andrew Owens of Greenergy says: "We are trying to introduce unprecedented standards. We're the good guys here."
Europe January 24, 2008 (Business Week from Der Spiegel)
Criticism Mounts Against Biofuels
The EU has announced plans to increase the use of gas and diesel produced from plants, but many say they are even more harmful than conventional fossil fuels by Charles Hawley
The images are enough to soothe one's soul. Golden fields of grain stretching as far as the eye can see; bright yellow rapeseed flower blooming in the European countryside; drivers happily cruising down the autobahn, smiling in the knowledge that the biodiesel their car is burning does no harm to the environment.
This used to be a dense forest in Indonesia. But the trees have made way for a palm oil plantation to produce biofuels.
But such a bucolic view of biofuels -- gas and diesel made from plants -- may soon become a thing of the past. The European Union on Wednesday unveiled a far-reaching plan aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent relative to 1990 and dramatically upping the share of renewable energies in the 27-member bloc's energy mix. The scheme also calls for 10 percent of fuel used in transportation to be made up of biofuels. That last element, though, is becoming increasingly controversial -- and environmental groups, this week, are leading an aggressive charge to put a stop to biofuels.
'No Way to Make Them Viable'
"The biofuels route is a dead end," Dr. Andrew Boswell, a Green Party councillor in England and author of a recent study on the harmful effects of biofuels, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "They are going to create great damage to the environment and will also produce dramatic social problems in (tropical countries where many crops for biofuels are grown). There basically isn't any way to make them viable."
The evidence against biofuels marshalled by Boswell and other environmentalists appears quite damning. Advertised as a fuel that only emits the amount of carbon dioxide that the plants absorb while growing -- making it carbon neutral -- it actually has resulted in a profitable industrial sector attractive to countries around the world. Vast swaths of forest have been felled and burned in Argentina and elsewhere for soya plantations. Carbon-rich peat bogs are being drained and rain forests destroyed in Indonesia to make way for extensive palm oil farming.
Because the forests are often torched and the peat rapidly oxidizes, the result is huge amounts of CO2 being released into the atmosphere. Furthermore, healthy peat bogs and forests absorb CO2 -- scientists refer to them as "carbon sinks" -- making their disappearance doubly harmful.
Indeed, the Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, released in October 2006, estimates that deforestation and other comparable land-use changes account for 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions around the world. Biofuels, say activists, accelerate that process.
A Gold Rush
"We are causing a climate catastrophe by promoting agro-fuels," Greenpeace agricultural specialist Alexander Hissting told SPIEGEL ONLINE, using his group's preferred term for biofuels. "We are creating a huge industry in many parts of the world. In Indonesia, something akin to a gold rush has broken out."
The European Union seems to have taken note of the gathering biofuels storm. The plan has noted that the 10-percent goal is dependent on whether "production is sustainable," as an EU PowerPoint presentation delivered to reporters on Tuesday noted. The EU also wants to make it illegal to use biofuels made from crops grown in nature reserves or in recently clear-cut forest lands. Crops grown in places valuable as carbon sinks are also to be avoided.
But critics doubt whether such clauses, which call for acceptable fields to be certified, is enforceable. "At the moment, such certification systems are very incomplete and it is very unlikely that they will ever work," says Boswell. "The biofuel supply chain is incredibly complicated."
Even EU scientists doubt whether the supposed benefits of biofuels will ever outweigh the costs. A recent report in the Financial Times cited an unpublished study by the Joint Research Center, a stable of European Commission scientists, as saying that the "uncertainty is too great to say whether the EU 10 percent biofuel target will save greenhouse gas or not." It noted that subsidies in place to promote biofuels would cost European taxpayers between ?33 billion and ?65 billion by 2020.
Environmentalists say that emissions aren't the only serious problem created by the biofuel boom. Even crops grown in northern countries, like corn in the United States or rapeseed in Germany and the rest of Europe, harbor major dangers to the climate. Both maize and rapeseed are voracious consumers of nitrogen, leading farmers to use large quantities of nitrous oxide fertilizers. But when nitrous oxide is released into the atmosphere, it reflects 300 times as much heat as carbon dioxide does. Paul J. Crutzen, who won the 1995 Nobel prize for chemistry, estimates that biodiesel produced from rapeseed can result in up to 70 percent more greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels. Corn, the preferred biofuels crop in the US, results in 50 percent more emissions, Crutzen estimates.
'A Total Disaster'
Another issue receiving increasing attention recently is that of rising food prices as foodstuffs are turned into fuel. Price increases for soybeans and corn hit developing countries particularly hard. Indeed, there have already been food price riots in Mexico, Morocco, Senegal and other developing countries. While the price increases cannot be pinned entirely on biofuels, it has certainly played a role. In October, the United Nations' Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Jean Ziegler called for a five-year moratorium on biofuels to combat rising prices. Using arable land for biofuels, he said, "is a total disaster for those who are starving."
Slowly, it appears that some governments are beginning to listen to the chorus of criticisms. Last autumn, the Canadian province of Quebec announced that it would cease building plants to produce the biofuel ethanol. And on Monday, the UK's House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee called for a stop in the increase of biofuel use. "Biofuels can reduce greenhouse gas emissions from road transport. But at present, most biofuels have a detrimental impact on the environment overall," committee chairman Tim Yeo said, according to Reuters.
The European Union has reacted with anger to the UK report. Andris Piebalgs, European commissioner for energy, told the Guardian that "the Commission strongly disagrees with the conclusion of the British House of Commons report."
The report, though, is music to the ears of environmentalists like Boswell. "We have been highlighting these problems for a number of years," he says. "Now it is time for the UK government to act on the committee report."