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Biofuel backlash prompts Brussels back-pedal

Corn-based fuel becoming a hot potato

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The ongoing backlash against biofuels continues to gather pace, with news out of Brussels that the European Union may postpone or even drop plans for biosource quotas in motor fuel.

The Guardian reported this weekend that officials in the European Commission are getting ready to backtrack on plans for ten per cent biofuel to be required in all European petrol and diesel by 2020.

"This is all very sensitive and fast-moving," an unnamed Commission bureaucrat told the Graun.

"There is now a lot of new evidence on biofuels and the commission has become a prisoner of this process."

Another official said that the ten per cent target "is now secondary", and that anyway it probably could no longer be met due to tough draft standards on sustainable production. This would seem to imply that most existing biofuel production wouldn't qualify under the draft Brussels rules.

At present most vehicle biofuel uses ethanol, ethyl alcohol, either as a percentage of normal fuel or exclusively in suitably adapted cars. So-called "flex-fuel" vehicles can run on any mixture of ethanol and regular fossil fuel.

But ethanol must currently be produced from food crops such as corn or sugar cane. The drive to ethanol - pushed, perhaps, as much by surging oil prices as environmental concerns - is seen by many as being behind recent food price rises and consequent hunger in some regions.

On top of that, many experts believe that ethanol biofuel doesn't reduce overall CO2 emissions as much as its proponents claim. In theory, the exhaust-pipe carbon is compensated for by the CO2 absorbed during photosynthesis in the growing plants used to make the fuel. But critics point out that intensively farmed crops draw carbon from artificial fertilisers, and that the process of turning the harvest into alcohol is also highly carbon-intensive.

Thus the actual reduction in CO2 emissions which can be claimed as a result of burning biofuel is the subject of much debate - the more so as this is critically important in the planned European carbon markets. The Graun reports that Brussels mandarins are hoping to gain acceptance for a figure of 35 per cent carbon reduction by burning agreed types of ethanol as compared to ordinary fossil fuels. In other words, if the whole transport industry could switch to using nothing but ethanol - no fossil fuel at all - the European Commission believe that overall transport-sector emissions would be down by about one-third.

There are alternative types of biofuel, such as methyl alcohol (wood alcohol) which can be made from non-food biomass or other sources. Lacking the support of powerful farm lobbies, however, methanol, biodiesel and the like have failed to gain widespread backing. Even if they did, the same criticisms of low or even notional carbon reduction, limited biomass availability etc might be levelled at them - though some would still pursue such plans on energy security grounds.

UK motor fuel is required to be 2.5 per cent biofuel already, and the plan is for this to rise to five per cent in two years. However, the British government may not press ahead - there is a Whitehall review underway. ®

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