EU acts against harm from biofuel crops

Biofuel production in Gross-Gerau, Germany - file pic Pulped maize is used for biofuel production in Gross-Gerau, Germany

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The EU is changing its policy on biofuels to encourage energy production from waste rather than from food crops.

The European Commission says clearing land in order to plant biofuel crops can often cancel out the environmental benefits of biofuel. In some cases forests are chopped down.

The EU is putting a cap of 5% on the food-based biofuel allowed in the renewable energy used in transport.

The EU's total renewable energy target for transport fuel is 10% by 2020.

The Commission will change the 2009 Renewable Energy Directive and the 1998 Fuel Quality Directive.

New biofuel installations will have to meet a minimum 60% threshold in terms of their efficiency in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

BBC environment analyst Roger Harrabin says some environmentalists had supported the biofuel laws in the first instance, before the side-effects became understood.

The UN has appointed a special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, who has sharply criticised the direct and indirect effects of biofuels on the poor.

Now the EU is trying to shift biofuel production from food crops to farm waste, algae and straw.

Clearing land to plant food for biofuel releases the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) through ploughing and can involve deforestation, which reduces the "carbon sinks" - the trees that absorb CO2.

'End support for biofuels'

A spokeswoman for the poverty action group Oxfam, Tracy Carty, welcomed the EU's new 5% cap but said the proposal would not go far enough.

"The cap is higher than the current levels of biofuels use and will do nothing to reduce high food prices," she said.

"The British government must up the pressure on other European member states to scrap its current targets and end all support for biofuels. With close to 900 million people going hungry every day, we cannot continue diverting valuable food into fuel."

Earlier, the EU Commissioner for Climate Action, Connie Hedegaard, said: "We must invest in biofuels that achieve real emission cuts and do not compete with food.

"We are of course not closing down first generation biofuels, but we are sending a clear signal that future increases in biofuels must come from advanced biofuels."

The European Renewable Ethanol Association (ePURE) rejected the suggestion that biofuel crops were putting too much pressure on food production.

"Global grain use for biofuels is minuscule and nowhere near enough to inflate prices significantly. Singling out biofuels for blame for rising food prices is simply reckless and only serves to damage public confidence in good biofuels", said ePURE's Secretary General Rob Vierhout.

"Europe has enough grain to produce both its food and fuel needs," he added.

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