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Brussels ploughs ahead with biofuel plans

Sugarbeet is the EU's Iowa corn

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In a move which has surprised analysts and environmentalists, the European Union will leave plans for strong takeup of biofuels sourced from food crops unchanged. A plan has been agreed in Brussels which will see biofuels dominating Europe's "renewable" transport quotas in coming years.

EU Observer reports that the member states, the European parliament and the European Commission reached agreement on the plan last week, and biofuel-heavy plans will move ahead largely unchanged. It had been thought that the use of increasingly controversial food-crop biofuels would be strongly de-emphasised, and other measures such as non-food fuels and electric transport would gain prominence.

Food biofuels, most typically ethanol, are made from crops such as corn, sugar cane and sugar beet. The growing plants absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, reducing the overall emissions associated with such fuel. However, the process of turning crops into useful ethanol involves significant energy use, as does the manufacture and use of fertilisers and other parts of the process. Biofuels only reduce the amount of carbon emitted compared to fossil fuels - they can't eliminate it.

Quite apart from that, more and more concern has arisen in recent years that crop biofuels drive up the price of food and lead to starvation for poor people around the world. Worse still, the need for more farmland to produce more crops may drive the process of deforestation.

Perhaps most damning of all, most experts agree that there just isn't enough land for developed nations to power any significant proportion of their transport using biofuels, made from food crops or not. All the UK's farmland wouldn't suffice even for the needs of the British aviation sector, and similarly the US can't fuel itself from its own farms.

But one of the primary driving factors behind the political popularity of food ethanol biofuel has been the Western farm lobby, which believes that ethanol is probably the only way for American and European farmers to stay in business in the long term. On both sides of the Atlantic, amid the heavy farm subsidies of the EU and the US, ethanol has enjoyed strong political backing.

It seems that this backing has been strong enough to preserve the Brussels biofuel plans largely unchanged - and indeed, according to EU Observer, some new rules on carbon reductions compared to fossil fuel have been relaxed so as to permit European sugarbeet to qualify as suitably sustainable. (Sugar beet's status as a low-carbon fuel is questionable compared to non-EU crops like sugar cane.)

Meanwhile, the EU has corporately decide to ignore the issue of deforestation, or "indirect land-use change", and encouragement of electric transport has been left as a choice for member states.

However, the new rules will allow "second generation" biofuels, not requiring farmland for production - for instance fuels derived from water algae or desert jatropha nuts - to count twice.

The full EU Observer report is here. ®

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