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EU ministers 'discover' biofuels not an obligation after all

"The member states realised that the Commission's plan specifies that 10 percent of transport needs must come from renewable energy, not 10 percent from biofuels," Jean-Louis Borloo, the French environment and energy minister, said at the close of the three-day gathering.
by Staff Writers
Paris (AFP) July 5, 2008
European Union energy ministers said at an informal meeting Saturday they had been labouring for 18 months under the false impression that an EU plan to fight global warming included an obligation to develop controversial biofuels.

What seems to be a stunning misreading on the part of policymakers in Brussels comes at a time when the image of biofuels has shifted over a matter of a months from climate saviour to climate pariah.

Documents issued by the EU describing its ambitious energy and climate plan, unveiled in January 2007, have consistently said that 10 percent of all the fuel powering vehicles would come from plants by 2020.

A closer reading of the texts by the ministers apparently revealed otherwise.

"The member states realised that the Commission's plan specifies that 10 percent of transport needs must come from renewable energy, not 10 percent from biofuels," Jean-Louis Borloo, the French environment and energy minister, said at the close of the three-day gathering.

Jurgen Homann, the junior economy and energy minister from Germany, also confirmed the misconception.

The ministers "discovered" that requirements for transport "do not speak of biofuels, but renewables," he told AFP.

The majority of biofuels produced in the world today are extracted from corn in the United States, sugar in Brazil, and both grain and oil-seed crops in Europe.

Heralded as recently as last year as a silver bullet in the fight against global warming, biofuels were seen as a relatively carbon-free way to fuel cars and trucks.

"A year ago you were considered an ogre if you were not in favor of biofuels," Borloo told journalists on the margin of the meeting.

In recent months, however, they have been fiercely criticised for driving up world food prices, diverting precious crop land, and aggravating deforestation.

An unpublished World Bank report blamed biofuels for a 75 percent rise in the price a basket of staple food items, Britain's Guardian newspaper reported Friday.

The new reading of the EU "action plan" for energy and climate policy immediately raises the question of what -- if anything -- will replace biofuels in fulfilling the 10 percent transport requirement by 2020 for renewable energy.

"Things are changing very, very quickly," said Borloo, cited a number of new technologies under development ranging from hydrogen fuel to fuel cells.

At the same he acknowledged that "99.9 percent of the renewable fuel now available for vehicles is biofuel."

The EU plan calls for 20 percent of all energy needs in the 27-nation bloc to be met from renewable sources by 2020, and for an 20 percent reduction of greenhouse gases -- compared to 1990 levels -- by the same date.

Borloo also noted a shift already underway towards so-called "second generation" biofuels made from non-food sources such as switchgrass and wood byproducts.

The three-day gathering of the EU's top energy and environment officials was hosted by France, which assumed the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union on July 1.

The talks focused on how to improve energy efficiency in order both to improve energy security and to help curb greenhouse gases.

On biofuels, the ministers also discussed the creation of standards for "carbon dioxide savings" that will measure how much less CO2 a given biofuel would emit when compared to carbon-based fuels.

While hard targets have yet to be adopted, one proposal on the table calls for a 35 percent "CO2 savings" by 2015, and a 50 percent savings at a date yet to be specified.

Green groups have criticised some grain-based fuels -- especially ethanol, made from corn -- as being nearly as CO2-intensive as gasoline once the cost of production and transport are taken into account.

Biofuels may still be in their infancy but they are growing rapidly, with annual production leaping by double-digit percentages.

In 2007, 20 percent of grain -- 81 million tonnes -- produced in the United States was used to make ethanol, according to US think tank the Earth Policy Institute, which predicts that the percentage will jump to nearly a quarter this year.

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Biofuels behind food price hikes: leaked World Bank report
London (AFP) July 4, 2008
Biofuels have caused world food prices to increase by 75 percent, according to the findings of an unpublished World Bank report published in The Guardian newspaper on Friday.

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