Analysis: European biofuel push proving hard to reverse

European policy-makers are discovering the difficulty of curbing a biofuel industry they weaned five years ago as a low-carbon alternative to crude oil, but which is increasingly at odds with the environment and food production.

To halt or reverse a $22-billion European biofuel industry requires a sound justification.

The problem with biofuels is that calculation of the full environmental impact of their production involves incredibly complicated, tortuous calculations using so-called life cycle assessment.

Probably the best course is to halt growth in the conventional biofuel industry, which produces fuel from food crops, pending better understanding of their full environmental and food price impacts.

That is broadly what the European Commission recently proposed, halving its target for crop-based biofuels to five per cent of road fuel in 2020, equivalent to present production levels.

But problems lurk.

The commission now says some biodiesel is as polluting as Canadian tarsands, which could lead to legislation banning those types of biodiesel. The commission wants to drive a switch to non-food sources for advanced biofuels, but kick-starting this fledgling, alternative industry risks repeating the original errors in supporting conventional biofuels.

Assessment

Life cycle assessment (LCA) is used to measure the full environmental impacts of economic activity.

The idea is to measure the environmental and other negative impacts of all stages in the production and consumption of goods, as a step towards paring these. In the case of conventional biofuels, the aim is to measure the full carbon emissions from production.

Life cycle stages include cultivation, harvesting and transport of crops and subsequent extraction of sugar for refining into fuel, and, most difficult to measure, the indirect emissions of displacing food crops onto other land, potentially adding to deforestation.

Uncertainties in such assessment include how far higher yields (from farm intensification using more fertilizer, labour and capital) can avoid land use change, including deforestation, as farmers try to produce food displaced by biofuels.

Nigel Mortimer, an LCA practitioner who leads the British consultancy North Energy Associates, says he considers the commission’s latest proposed indirect land use change (ILUC) estimates to be premature.

“Despite many valiant attempts, no such model has yet gained universal acceptance,” he stated.

Even the experts used by the commission acknowledge the complexity of such analyses.

Non-food

Hiking incentives for non-food biofuels also rely on complex accounting.

For example, the commission would allow straw to count four times the equivalent crop-based biofuels.

The justification is that straw is a waste product (or “agricultural residue”) which therefore requires no land in its production and so causes no indirect emissions. But straw is not waste, instead a byproduct of cereal production which has an economic value as animal bedding.

Energy crops such as miscanthus grass count twice, even though it uses land and so potentially displaces food crops in exactly the same way as conventional biofuels.

The result is inconsistent, an attempt both to be science based and at the same time to support advanced biofuels.

That juggling may be the best the commission can do to put the biofuel industry on a sounder footing, but it creates uncertainty, will scare investors and risks repeating mistakes.

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