BRUSSELS - Scientists tasked with advising the European Union's policy-makers have called for a target on promoting the greater use of biofuels to be dropped.
As part of a battery of measures officially aimed at addressing climate change, the EU's governments agreed in 2006 that 10 percent of the bloc's transport needs should derive from agricultural crops by 2020.
In a new paper, the European Environment Agency's scientific committee describes the goal as "overambitious" and recommends it should be suspended until a comprehensive study on the pros and cons of biofuels is completed.
According to the paper, meeting the 10 percent objective will necessitate large-scale import of biofuels from outside the EU. With the growing production of biofuels such as palm oil already accelerating deforestation in poor countries, the scientists argue that it will be difficult to monitor whether crops destined for use in European vehicles are being cultivated in an ecologically sustainable manner.
They also suggest that the production and use of biofuels may not lead to major cuts in the emissions of carbon dioxide, the main substance triggering global warming, when compared to conventional petrol or diesel. They express concern that an upsurge in biofuel production will put increasing pressure on water, soil, flora and fauna. And they query if the EU's target is realistic, given that a previous one -- set in 2003 -- of ensuring that biofuels comprise 2 percent of transport fuels by 2005 was not attained.
Chaired by Hungarian professor LászlÃƒÂ³ SomlyÃƒÂ³dy, the committee is the second EU scientific body this year to query the wisdom of the 10 percent target.
In January, a leaked paper from scientists in the European Commission's Joint Research Centre said that the costs of reaching the goal will "almost certainly outweigh the benefits." The JRC called into question the EU's decision to focus its target on transport, contending that it would be more efficient to use agricultural resources for generating electricity than as biofuels.
The EEA's position contrasts with the stance taken by JosÃƒ© Manuel Barroso, the European Commission's president, earlier in the week. Barroso claimed that the EU should "remain attached" to its target, adding that the alternative to biofuels is to continue running most cars on conventional petrol.
He dismissed, too, recent statements by the World Food Programme and the World Bank that the ballooning demand for biofuels is contributing to rising prices of food and the prospect of a major hunger crisis in poor crisis. Barroso's comments were similar to those made by Andris Piebalgs, Europe's energy commissioner, who complained last month that biofuels have been made a "scapegoat" for rising commodity prices, suggesting that poor harvests and higher living standards among the middle classes in India and China are more to blame.
Adrian Bebb, a campaigner with Friends of the Earth, said: "Barroso is looking increasingly isolated in holding this view. He is living in a different world if he thinks that he knows better than all of the experts on food policy. The 10 percent target is untenable."
Bebb alleged that the Commission's position is being influenced more by lobbying from firms with a vested interest in biofuels than in a desire to protect the environment. "The only winners from the 10 percent target will be the big agro-chemical companies, those who sell seeds and chemicals," he said. "Everyone else will be losers."
Gerard Choplin from the European Farmers Coordination said: "Biofuels are not a scapegoat (for rising food prices). In the U.S., corn is being increasingly grown for biofuels, so the U.S. is exporting less corn. This has put a new pressure on the world market. It is directly linked to biofuels."
Despite Barroso's comments, Choplin noted that other senior EU figures have been less obstinate in defending the 10 percent target. In March, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, whose country holds the Union's rotating presidency, said that the possibility of revising or amending the target has not been excluded.
Barroso has also argued that criteria should be devised in order to ensure that biofuels are produced in a way that does not cause large-scale ecological damage.
However, environmental activists have branded as too weak a set of criteria prepared in late March by officials at the Council of Ministers, which bands together the EU's 27 governments.
While the officials recommended that the Commission should analyse the ecological and social effects of biofuel production, it only recommended that "corrective action" should be proposed "if appropriate". No suggestions were made about addressing concerns that biofuels may be exacerbating global hunger.
Greenpeace, the European Environmental Bureau, Friends of the Earth and BirdLife International have written jointly to EU governments urging them not to rush into devising criteria. A hasty EU agreement on standards that fails "to prevent potentially devastating outcomes for climate protection, biodiversity and vulnerable peoples would severely undermine the credibility of EU efforts to tackle climate change and to address emissions from transport in a sensible way," the organisations said.
© 2008 Inter Press Service