European Commission split over biofuels

The European Commission is experiencing a bitter three-way split over biofuels policy, with no real sign of who will prevail. Chief among the biofuels boosters is DG Energy & Transport, which sees a rapid expansion of biofuel production and consumption as a core part of meeting high-level commitments to green energy and reducing dependency on fossil fuel imports from unstable regions like the Middle East or unreliable countries like Russia. DG Energy is in a bitter disagreement with DG Environment on the question of whether biofuels are part of the solution to climate change or part of the problem.

DG Environment cites a mounting body of evidence that so-called first generation biofuels (ethanol from cereals, biodiesl from rapeseed and palm oil) have a negative impact on carbon dioxide emissions because of the large amounts of energy required to raise the crops and the loss of ‘carbon sinks’ like wetlands, rainforest and peatland if these lands are turned over to cereals or oilseed production.

DG Agriculture falls somewhere in the middle ground between the boosters of DG Energy & Transport and the skeptics of DG Environment. DG Agri likes biofuels because they increase demand for arable crops, and this is a boon for arable farmers, DG Agri’s most influential client group. Livestock farmers are less enthusiastic since increased prices for cereals and oilseeds increases the cost of animal feeds. But livestock farmers (particularly pigmeat and poultry farmers) are likely to be over-looked: they have always lacked the political clout to match the powerful arable lobby.

A public consultation exercise which the Commission undertook on the future of the EU’s biofuels policy concluded on 18 June and the wrangling within the Commission is well underway. Among member states, the Netherlands has voiced the loudest concerns. Earlier in the year, Jacqueline Cramer, the Dutch environment minister, proposed that financial support for biofuels produced from carbon-rich soils like peatlands should end.

Despite the uncertain science and the rising level of concern among environmental groups, a massive increase in biofuel production remains a irresistable formula for politicians. They claim to be addressing climate change, reducing energy dependency, boosting farm incomes and all without requiring the public to make changes to energy-intenstive lifestyles.

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