How green is biofuel?
Last updated: 03 October, 2011
October 3, New York Times News Service 17:06 IST
Scientists say policy makers have overestimated the potential for bioenergy to cut greenhouse gas emissions. There are concerns that large patches of forest and grassland will be cleared or burned to grow fuel crops. Another cause for concern is that growing food crops (displaced by fuel crops) elsewhere will release carbon into the atmosphere, writes James Kanter
Much of the appeal of generating energy from plants was that they emit only as much carbon when burned in cars and power plants as they absorb while growing. Lately, that appeal seems to be going up in smoke. It turns out that the emissions from growing and processing some biofuels significantly diminish their benefits, when taking into account factors like the use of fertilisers manufactured with fossil fuels. Concerns have also grown that large swaths of forest and grassland will be chopped down or burned to grow fuel crops – and to grow food that has been displaced by growing fuel crops elsewhere – thereby releasing additional stocks of carbon into the atmosphere.
Olivier De Schutter, the special rapporteur on the Right to Food for the United Nations, is among the experts who have said that pressure on farmland from demand for biofuels is a major factor in the food price spikes that have exacerbated hunger and social unrest in some of the poorest countries in the past three years. Anti-poverty groups like ActionAid and Oxfam have warned that demand for biofuels led to land deals in Kenya, Senegal and Guatemala that displaced people, or left them without enough land to grow enough food to eat and make a living.
An influential committee of 19 scientists and academics described yet another concern last month: that the authorities, including the European Union, had gotten their math wrong and were overestimating the potential for bioenergy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The Scientific Committee of the European Environment Agency said the Union had committed a “serious accounting error” by failing to measure how much additional carbon dioxide was absorbed by existing fields, forests and grasslands, compared with that absorbed by energy crops.
“The potential consequences of this bioenergy accounting error are immense,” the committee wrote.
The committee concluded that the Union was effectively “double-counting” some reductions in greenhouse gases, and it warned that current bioenergy policies “may even result in increased carbon emissions – thereby accelerating global warming.” The opinion drew a chilly response from the European Commission, which oversees policies on renewable energy. Marlene Holzner, a spokeswoman for Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger, said parts of the opinion were based on work that had been “rebutted by other institutions in the past.”
Bioenergy has become one of the most fiercely contested issues in Brussels since the EU governments agreed three years ago that 20 per cent of all energy, and 10 per cent of transport fuels, should come from renewable sources by the end of the decade.
Bioenergy, including the burning of wood to produce electricity, would meet about half of the overall renewable energy target under national plans, while biofuels would provide the majority of renewable transport fuels. Powerful interests are at stake. Biofuels already supply about four per cent of transport fuels in Europe, with sales worth about $17 billion annually.
There is a need to “protect the legitimate expectations for EU agriculture” and “avoid problems with the EU’s main trading partners,” according to minutes from a meeting in July at which a number of EU commissioners discussed biofuels. The commissioners also discussed waiting as long as seven years before penalising growers of the fuels with the greatest effects on food and land use changes, like the clearing of rain forests and the draining of peat land.
How green is this energy?
Officials from the EU climate department still are pushing for those measures to go into force within three years and for additional measures that would limit fuels based on some palm oil and soya beans to go into effect as soon as possible. Even so, concerns are growing that the commission has been too quick to shrug off evidence that its policies encourage some harmful forms of bioenergy. Recently, environmental groups including BirdLife International, the European Environmental Bureau and Greenpeace sent a letter to Josa Manuel Barroso, the president of the commission, seeking assurances that his organisation was “giving due consideration to science in its energy policy, after several instances in which the best available science was dismissed.”
Even some industries are growing frustrated, as Europe seeks more of its energy from plants. The European Panel Federation, an industry group representing manufacturers of wood-based panels including subsidiaries of Ikea, the Swedish furniture giant, applauded the findings by the 19 scientists and academics. Ladislaus Doery, president of the federation, said demand for wood in the form of chips and sawdust from sawmills had skyrocketed because it was too easy for electricity utilities to count burning wood pellets as reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Doery said a number of European panel-makers had already gone out of business and that the EU authorities needed to change their rules on bioenergy. The accounting error “is really serious,” he said. “We are in the crazy situation that there are economic incentives in place to burn one of our most important raw materials to the detriment of environment and economy,” he said.