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Current biofuels do not add to the sustainability of transport

Press release | 04-03-2008

The climate has more to gain from converting biomass into electricity, than to use it to replace petrol or diesel. Therefore, proposals to replace current transport fuels by biofuels are not the best investment in sustainability. This is shown in the report “Local and global consequences of the EU renewable directive for biofuels: testing the sustainability criteria”, by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. The findings from this study will be presented to the European Parliament, today.

10% biofuels for transport

On 23 January, the European Commission presented its proposal for energy and climate. For the transport sector, it has set a target of 10% renewable energy. This target can only be met by using biofuels. The European Commission has indicated that these biofuels have to be produced in a sustainable way, and that the greenhouse gas emissions of the entire production chain, must be at least 35% lower than those of fossil fuels or diesel. All of the biofuels can comply with these conditions.

Higher food prices

Since existing techniques for biofuels are based on food crops such as grain, maize, sugar beet and palm oil (of which the latter does not fit the sustainability criteria), the EU biofuel target of 10% will lead to an increase in food prices. These higher food prices may not necessarily have only negative effects. But food importing countries, such as many African countries, will be negatively affected by the rising prices. These effects will increase even further, when other countries start to stimulate biofuels. The United States, for instance, are planning to increase the production of bioethanol to over 130 billion litres, in the next 10 years.

Preservation of biodiversity collides with greenhouse gas reduction

The production of biofuels requires more land. Based on currently available techniques, a 10% target for 2020, means an area of 20 to 30 million hectares, 16 million of which in Europe itself. An area of this size, within Europe, would only become available after liberalisation of the agricultural policy of the EU. However, a fully operational free trade system would mean that the EU would produce only half of the necessay crops. The other half would be imported, because of cheaper production elsewhere. In order to prevent biodiversity loss, more efficient agricultural production can be applied, using artificial fertiliser. However, in some crops this causes increased nitrogen emissions, which -in the form of nitrous oxide- is also a greenhouse gas. Therefore, the EU target to halt biodiversity loss can collide with the greenhouse gas emission reduction target.

Sustainable transport

Expectations are partly directed at new biofuels. It would be a good thing, if waste products could be used in this area. However, those new biofuels are not always the best option, from an ecological point of view. New technologies for sustainable transport are fuel cell cars on hydrogen, hybrides, ‘plug-in’ hybrides and completely electric cars. The production costs of these new techniques are relatively high, due to the fact that they are not yet commercially produced - apart from the hybride cars.

Bearing in mind the necessity for sustainable alternatives in transport, it is crucial to seize the opportunities offered by these options, as much as possible.

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