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ENERGY Biofuels

Burnt by the sun

By Jennifer Rankin  -  04.06.2009 / 04:40 CET
Biofuels were once seen as the future of energy production but concerns about the damage they can do has clouded their reputation.
 

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Fact file

Tricky targets

The European Union's experiment with biofuels took off in 2003, with a directive calling for biofuels to have a 2% share of the fuel market by 2005 and a 5.75% share by 2010.
The first target was missed and the Commission has given up on the second. But this did not stop the EU from setting an even more ambitious goal: to get 10% of transport fuel from renewable sources by 2020.
The Commission's department for transport and energy had originally proposed a 10% biofuels target, but this was broadened to renewable energy during negotiations on the 2008 renewables directive.
One of the most difficult parts of that 2008 directive was agreeing on green safeguards to ensure that the production, transport and use of biofuels added up to a worthwhile saving of carbon emissions when compared to fossil fuels. In the end the EU agreed that all biofuels must have a carbon saving of at least 35% compared to fossil fuels, rising to 50% by 2017 (and 60% in 2017 for new refineries).
The EU also stipulated where biofuels could be grown, ruling out biofuels from clearing old forests, endangered ecosystems or grasslands rich in biodiversity.
Despite the possibility of safeguards, not everyone thinks it was right to stick to the 10% target. The European Environment Agency called for a suspension of the 10% target, concluding that its “unintended effects are difficult to predict and difficult to control”.

American arguments

Including the domino effects of indirect land-use changes can have a dramatic effect on the calculation of whether a biofuel can be deemed to be good for the environment.
American corn-based ethanol offers a greenhouse gas saving of 61% compared to fossil fuels, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
But when the EPA counted the carbon cost of indirect land change caused by corn-based ethanol, the saving fell to just 16%.
The industry disputes the calculations. Bob Dinneen, chief executive officer of the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), said that the 16% figure is “still extraordinarily positive, but not where we think we are”. The RFA has argued that indirect land change is “highly speculative”.
Some lawmakers go further. Collin Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat who chairs the agriculture committee in the House of Representatives, complained that the government was “going to kill off the biofuels industry before it even gets started”.
US greens have responded positively to the EPA's plans. The American branch of Friends of the Earth praised the EPA for taking up the domino effects problem, but criticised the rules for allowing “polluters to cook the books”, because the carbon debt of biofuels will be measured over a long period.
This month's lobbying war in Washington gives a clue as to how battle lines will be drawn in Brussels.

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