Biofuels and the law of unintended consequences

Targeted use of biofuels in the European Union could actually increase greenhouse gas emissions because forests and wetlands will be destroyed to grow the crops necessary, according to a new study by nine environmental groups:

Energy targets for 23 of the EU’s 27 members suggest 9.5 percent of the bloc’s transportation energy will come from biofuels by 2020, said the groups, which include Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and ActionAid. The crops may need an area twice the size of Belgium, and clearing the necessary land could make the fuels 167 percent more polluting for the climate than sticking with gasoline and diesel, they said.

“Biofuels are not a climate-friendly solution to our energy needs,” Laura Sullivan, ActionAid’s European policy and campaigns manager, said in the statement. “The EU plans effectively give companies a blank cheque to continue grabbing land from the world’s poor by growing biofuels.”

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The study by the campaign groups estimated 69,000 square kilometers, or 6.9 million hectares, would be needed.

“The production of biofuels can indirectly cause additional deforestation and land conversion, including of fragile ecosystems,” the groups said. “When existing agricultural land is turned over to biofuel production, agriculture has to expand elsewhere.”

EU energy spokeswoman Marlene Holzner takes issue with the study, saying that the targets require less land than the study suggests and that EU guidelines prevent the use of deforested land:

The 10 percent target would require 2 million to 5 million hectares of land, and there is enough unused terrain in the EU that was previously used for crop production to cover its needs, Holzner said.

But Holzner rather conveniently glosses over a critical point: food crops have to be grown somewhere. When land that has been used for growing food crops is used to grow fuel crops instead, then other land will have to be found to grow the food crops. All too often, that means clearing forests, with all the associated ripple effects.

For example, clearing forests means burning tree stumps and limbs, which pollutes the air. It also means shrinking the habitats where a number of species live. Rabbits and other small animals will venture into farmland and start eating the crops. The larger animals which prey on those smaller ones will follow after them and kill herd animals, working animals and family pets. But don’t try to explain the law of unintended consequences to those who are determined not to listen. All they know is that government intrusion into markets is always a good thing, and there is no downside to biofuels worthy of their consideration.

- JP

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