We need biofuels to tackle climate change – but not at the expense of the world’s poor.

Wheat field in the Yorkshire Wolds, Beverley, UK.Last week’s vote on the EU’s biofuels policy was a chance for MEPs to make sure that we have a genuinely sustainable and effective environmental policy that will help to secure Europe’s position as a world leader in the fight against climate change. Unfortunately, it’s a chance we may have missed.

Biofuels are fuels made from living things like plants, or the waste that living things produce.  Promoting their use has become a key feature of the EU’s environmental policy as they have the potential to be carbon neutral; burning biofuels still produces carbon but plants grown for biofuels absorb carbon.  In 2009, the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive and Fuel Quality Directive both set targets for the proportion of our energy that should come from biofuels.

Since then there has been a huge expansion in the biofuels industry, partly funded through European subsidies.  The largest share of the biofuels market comes from sugar and cereal crops (bioethanol) and vegetable oils (biodiesel).  However, these ‘first generation’ biofuels use crops that would otherwise have been used for food or animal feed.  As large amounts of crops that were previously grown for food have been used to meet the growing demand for biofuels, alternative land has been found to grow crops for food, a process known as Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC).

This ILUC has had serious consequences.  Firstly, as agricultural land for food becomes more scarce, food prices have increased and this means that many people, especially in developing countries, cannot afford to eat.  Currently, the amount of food consumed as fuel by G8 countries could feed the population of the UK for seven years.

Additionally, the extra land needed is frequently found by clearing carbon rich habitats such as forests, grasslands or peats. When these lands with a high organic content are cleared to make way for agriculture, it often results in a large loss of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.  This means that a policy intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions may actually be indirectly contributing to them.  So not only is European biofuels policy leading to thousands going hungry in poorer countries, it may actually be contributing to the global warming that it was intended to prevent.

So last week MEPs voted on a report that was meant to address these problems.  Along with my Labour colleagues, I wanted to see a cap of 5.5% on the proportion of crop-based biofuels that could go towards meeting the EU’s 10% target. However, it was an amendment proposing a cap of 6% that was passed.

We also need to ensure that the carbon emissions resulting from ILUC are taken into account when assessing the potential greenhouse gas savings of biofuels.  So I wanted to see recognition of ILUC factors in both the Renewable Energy Directive and the Fuel Quality Directive, but again the Parliament voted for ILUC factors to be included only in the Fuel Quality Directive and not until 2020.

Ultimately we need a policy that incentivises sustainable, ‘second generation’ biofuels, for example those made from waste products, straw or algae rather than crops.  So I was pleased that MEPs did support a sub-target of 2.5% for these advanced biofuels.

Hundreds of constituents have contacted me about this issue, so I know just how important it is to the people that I represent. And I agree, while it is right that the EU should try to promote sustainable energy alternatives, we cannot accept a situation where people in developing countries are going hungry because crops that could be used for food are being burned in European fuel tanks.

Although I was disappointed with last week’s vote, the report that we adopted would be an improvement on the current situation.  However, the European Parliament, with support from Tory MEPs, voted against beginning negotiations with the 28 EU governments.  This means that the final decision might not be made until after the 2014 elections, and these much needed reforms may be further delayed.

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