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EU Acknowledges Potential Shortcomings of Biofuels, Pushes For Global Trade and Sustainable Development

The European Commission is holding a two-day International Conference on Biofuels in Brussels today and tomorrow. The by-invitation only conference, convened by Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighborhood Policy, aims to launch a discussion about developing an international approach that would reap the benefits of biofuels, while ensuring sustainable development and avoiding the creation of new risks.

The conference aims to tackle four key issues: the development of international trade in biofuels; the environment and biofuels; developing countries and biofuels; and current and future research prospects.

In her opening remarks, Ferrero-Waldner noted that biofuels offer important potential advantages for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector, while creating new jobs, opening up new markets for agricultural productional, and supporting international development goals. But, she said:

...we cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the potential drawbacks. We need to analyse them—and avoid them... Poorly managed production can increase rather than decrease greenhouse gas emissions. We know about the negative effects on soil protection, water management, bio-diversity, air protection and the world’s forests. Clearly, production must be compatible with our overall environmental objectives.

—Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner

José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, echoed the benefits of biofuels, noting that “they are one of the few practical ways—alongside more efficient vehicles and hybrids—to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emission in transport.

The EU has introduced targets of 20% renewables in the energy mix and 10% biofuels in the vehicle fuel mix by 2020.

The EU is determined to ensure that biofuels are developed in ways that protect our planet – not in ways that create new risks. Our aim must be to develop an EU biofuels policy which meets our objectives on security of supply and climate change, while ensuring sustainable development. What we must not do is pursue a policy which simply shifts environmental problems from one sector to another, or from one continent to another.

We are all aware that—in some cases—biofuels can be produced in ways that do not deliver greenhouse gas savings. Equally—again, in some cases—biofuels can be produced in ways which cause environmental problems in terms of soil protection, water management, biodiversity, air protection, and the world's forests.

But that doesn’t change the fact that it is possible to manage biofuel development in ways that reap the potential benefits, without engendering new problems.

—EC President José Manuel Barroso

Barroso said that the EC will give a high priority to research into second-generation biofuels, industrial biotechnology, and biorefineries, noting that “A comprehensive research, development and deployment strategy will be necessary to develop a new generation of biofuels with better yields, better commercial viability and better environmental performance.

Andris Piebalgs, the EC’s Energy Commissioner re-emphasized the focus on second-generation biofuels, saying that “we must aim at the earliest possible entry into the market of second-generation biofuels.”

Piebalgs said that the EC will incorporate its biofuel measures, alongside other measures needed to push the share of renewable energy up to 20%, in a single directive that will then go to the European Council and Parliament for consideration.

In addition to the legal backing for the 10% biofuels target, the directive will contain a sustainability scheme, the details of which are still being worked out, Piebalgs said.

The initial ideas are to:

  • Set minimum sustainability standards for biofuels;

  • Only biofuels that meet these standards will count towards the 10% target; and

  • Only these biofuels will be eligible for tax exemptions; only they will count towards biofuel obligations.

(This approach mirrors that being considered by the UK to encourage sustainable biofuels. Earlier post.)

The rules will apply equally to domestically produced biofuels and to imports.

Piebalgs said that an increase in global trade in biofuels and in biofuel feedstocks is important.

Now, as far as the EU is concerned, I should point out that we could—if we had to—fulfil our 10% target for 2020 entirely through domestically produced biofuels—notably, by using set-aside agricultural land and by reducing the rate at which arable land is being abandoned in the EU. This approach would imply only a small increase in agricultural commodity prices—a matter of a few percentage points.

However, even if this approach is technically possible, it is not the one that we want to follow. We think that this purely domestic sourcing of biofuels is neither likely—given current trade rules, and the increased trade liberalization we hope to see in future—nor desirable. Instead, we aim at a balanced approach under which domestically produced biofuels and imports will both contribute to meeting the EU’s growing needs.

—Commissioner Andris Piebalgs

Peter Mandelson, EU Trade Commissioner, said that

Europe should be open to accepting that we will import a large part of our biofuel resources. Even if it theoretically is possible, it is unlikely that our 10% target for biofuels in the EU's energy mix could be met without wider sourcing from imports.

We should certainly not contemplate favouring EU production of biofuels with a weak carbon performance if we can import cheaper, cleaner, biofuels. Resource nationalism doesn’t serve us particularly well in other areas of energy policy—biofuels are no different.

—Commissioner Peter Mandelson



Hi, we attended this highly interesting conference. For more in-depth coverage, check:


While I agree there should be an international trade in biofuels there is also a non-trivial point of transportation. The transportation of any commodity adds to its carbon footprint. Transporting biofuels over long distances could reduce the savings in GHG emissions. What's needed is a transport system that's carbon free to move low carbon fuels.


Ai vin, you're right, but some serious research suggests that transport costs for biofuels moved in long-distance trades, are relatively low.

More here: International bioenergy transport costs and energy balance - IEA Bioenergy Task 40.

They're basically transported in huge oil tankers/bulk carriers. If only we could fuel these ships with biofuels, but they're working on that too.

In principle, the entire transport and production chain can be powered by biofuels.

Rafael Seidl

Sounds like they are trying to tap into the high feedstock production rates possible in tropical countries while avoiding clear-cutting of virgin rainforest. That's sensible enough, from both an envrionmental and a development perspective. Countries in Africa, Asia and South America that are poor today may grow richer and therefore less dependent on foreign aid budgets.

Less explicitly, there is a desire to avoid substituting farm subsidies for food production with farm subsidies for biofuel production, under the guise of optimizing the climate benefits of biofuels. France, Spain, Poland and several others will surely fight a rearguard battle to keep the Euros coming into their economies. Indirectly, most of those end up not in the pockets of farmers but those of the agrobusiness giants, who in turn contribute to the coffers of political parties.

However, even the French know there no way the EU could afford to offer membership to Turkey and/or Ukraine until and unless the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is pared back or terminated altogether. This may be one reason why Pres. Sarkozy is arguing against Turkish membership even though his predecessor committed France to good faith negotiations toward that end.


Kind of a stupid premise.

If you create "green" biofuels by displacing a bunch of food crops.

And then those food crops get grown in areas which create massive deforrestation.


The biofuel is "Green" but the net result is worse off than doing nothing.


I would like to invite all audience to visit a newly lounched site dedicated to biofuels, ethanol and climate issues. Potential writers are wellcome to write to

Paul Dietz

If you create "green" biofuels by displacing a bunch of food crops.

People consume food energy at the rate of about 150 watts (averaged over time), although there is also much wastage of initial plant energy in the meat production system.

The per capita primary energy use in the US is over 10,000 watts.

So, if biofuels displace a significant fraction of primary energy demand, the total demand on biological productivity could greatly increase. And if biofuels become truly profitable without subsidy, what will stop every tropical country that wants its slice of this bio-OPEC from converting their natural ecosystems to energy plantations?

Rafael & Paul:

Wouldn't the new revenues from biofuel feed stocks nullify the need for 'farm subsidies' for food production. Secondly, the price of food stocks will go up (probably double within 2 to 5 years) as more land is used to produce biofuel feed stocks.

One question remains. Can the planet produce enough feed stocks for 10 billion humans + many more animals + 5 billion vehicles?

Using other energy sources such as wind, waves, sun, geothermal, nuclear etc in more efficient PHEVs and BEVs may be a much better idea.

Could we engineer more efficient humans, i.e. capable of good performance on 100 Watts or less instead of the current 150 Watts and much more for our many heavy weight?


Hi, our small organisation was invited at this landmark conference. Today (day 2) focused on the challenges and opportunities of biofuels for the poor.

If you want to learn more about the 'food versus fuel' issue, check out what major experts (FAO, IFPRI) at the Conference think about it, here:

Promises and challenges of biofuels for the poor - Highlights from the International Conference on Biofuels (Day 2, part 1)

Biofuels can actually improve the food security of the poor, provided production is guided by strong policies that ensure participation of small farmers in the sector.

I hope GCC doesn't mind these links, it's just that we were there and are covering the event in-depth.

Kind regards,


I'm wondering if the editors/reporters of Green Car Congress might not consider whether there are significant dangers in even including the topic of biofuels from virgin biomass (i.e. plants grown on cropland for fuel) on equal footing with discussions of vehicle efficiency or electric/hybrid vehicles. The association of biofuels with "green" in the minds of the public as well as the presumably better educated audience for this blog needs to broken.

Only a rigorous eco-certification scheme, similar to the Forest Stewardship Councils (FSC) certification of sustainably harvested woods will make biofuels truly a weapon against global warming. Otherwise the international market for biofuels will quickly devastate high-carbon ecosystems in both the developed and particularly the developing world.

Without eco-certification, reporting on new biofuels in a "green" context is on a par with reporting on the discovery of new gas/oil fields or seams of coal: not really cause for hope or celebration.


"Could we engineer more efficient humans, i.e. capable of good performance on 100 Watts or less instead of the current 150 Watts and much more for our many heavy weight?"

Interesting that this unregistered poster ducks identifying himself.

As usual this discussion arduously avoids aquaculture and the production of a majority of biofuel from saltwater algal growth. Maybe if we don't acknowledge the solutions - we can wallow in the problems longer?


Michael, the topic of certification was very explicitly discussed at the conference.

Of course, if such certification schemes become yet another barrier to trade pushing developing countries even deeper into poverty, then eco-certification becomes a very environmentally destructive tool.

As you probably know, tariffs, subsidies, and trade barriers in the wealthy West have caused more environmental damage and poverty for millions in the developing world, than any other policy. This protectionism keeps millions in poverty and underdevelopment, forces small farmers to rely on destructive, low productivity, subsistence agriculture (driving deforestation and land destruction and ever faster expansion of arable land) and keeps them dependent on primitive biomass use (driving deforestation once more).

Fair trade rules (Doha ideals) could change this situation.

So in the context of biofuels, it will be a matter of finding a compromise between fair trade rules and a set of certification criteria.

Biofuels offer the opportunity for increased incomes for small farmers (at least if they can sell on wealthy markets - that is, if tariffs and barriers are abandoned). With these incomes they can finally invest in farm inputs and in basic agricultural tools and techniques. This increases yields, and reduces the land needed for (energy and food) crops.

Remember, the biggest driver of deforestation and environmental destruction in the developing world is poverty.

Why do you think that forests in Europe and the US are now regenerating? That's so because these regions have become so incredibly wealthy that they no longer need to slash and burn their way through existence.

If we want to keep some of the tropical forests intact, then they way forward is to allow small farmers in the developing world to participate in the biofuels market, which brings them income they can invest in sane agriculture.

Balancing economic development (which, in the long term, equates with environmental sustainability - see Europe's forest regeneration), with immediate sustainability criteria is the way to go.

Just pushing for stringent eco-certification would be very dangerous, and indeed, could even lead to more environmental destruction because it would just keep ever more people in poverty. And poverty fuels unsustainable practises.


You are making a humanitarian argument that is based on a couple of assumptions that may be more wishful thinking than factual:

1) forest destruction in the tropics is driven by farmers pushed by subsistence needs or poverty.

2) eco-certification of a rigorous nature is anti-small farmer/farm laborer

3) the laws of supply and demand will not push down food production in favor of biofuels

1) My sense is that forest destruction is driven by small, medium and larger entrepreneurs in developing countries who may or may not employ the poor as laborers for their operations. They are responding to demand in the developing and developed world with little regard for sustainability. The only way to influence these people is to curb and shape demand so they can only make money in more ethical ways. Their choice of business and methods may reflect the lack of business and professional options in their countries but it is not simply the expression of the need to fulfill basic needs.

2) eco-certification can help especially small farmers earn higher incomes as witnessed by the Fair Trade organic coffee cooperatives in South America. You seem to be arguing against eco-certification as if it is anti=small farmer...I wonder why?

3) You seem to be engaging in wishful thinking with regard to the degree to which wealthy drivers in the developed world will "outbid" food consumers in the developing world for crop production. The effect of biofuel production has already been felt by poor Mexicans in the price of tortillas and has been commented upon by noted environmentalists such as Lester Brown and George Monbiot. Why would the laws of supply and demand not shape this market if it remains unregulated?

I believe it is important that people get it out of their minds that biofuels are by their nature "a good thing". They CAN be a good thing but with a lot more voluntary and perhaps even mandated regulation.

I know for sure that biofuels can easily become a very bad thing which is something that some biofuel advocates haven't yet realized. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we are dealing with plants and farmers or the fact that the originators of the movement had the best intentions. The leaders of the biofuels movement need to re-assess and "lift their game" because their very success could undermine the whole purpose for starting the movement in the first place.


Just a quick addition to discussion between Michael and Jonas. Personally I think the biggest reason for environmental destruction in the developing world is population pressure. That's what makes people in the South to go for lands that have not been in use before. Biofuels won't solve that problem as Jonas seems to suggest. Rather, they will increase it in the way Michael describes. Population pressure has always been there, but nowadays there are tools available even for small farmers that can cut into virgin forests.

Actually population pressure has probably increased of late due to introduction of some medical care in the poor South, which has cut down mortality to some extent. I think it's a curse for people living there unless it's accompanied with birth rate control. It's not nice to be living in a place that can't feed the population and has no resources to access world markets.


One of the problems with the currently favored bio-fuel, ethanol, is the feedstock: sugar and starch. This means diversion of food crops for fuel (nothing you don't already know). However, there is some research going on to substitute cellulose for the sugar and starch, and producing butanol, instead of ethanol. One such process can double the amount of butanol produced (compared with ethanol) from the same feedstock (as ethanol), and reduce the final cost of production by more than half its current cost. Also, the use of cellulose, instead of sugars and starches opens up the field of candidates for feedstock: think about all the waste cellulose that ends up in landfills -- think of all the garden and agricultural waste that could be used to generate fuel -- imagine sending the wheat to market and the chaff to the fuel processing plant -- saltwater algal growth would work, too, gr. :) And if your feedstock is edible going in, the final waste product should be edible as well -- at the very least, it can be used as fertilizer.

One of the major benefits of butanol over ethanol is that it fairly solves the distribution issues: butanol can be distributed by the same delivery method as gasoline, since butanol is not corrosive like ethanol. This also means butanol can be used in any vehicle that currently uses gasoline, not just vehicles made especially to use ethanol, meaning a greater number of people and vehicles can jump on the bandwagon (or butanol wagon), not just people who can afford the price premium of a new flex-fuel vehicle (if they can afford a new vehicle at all).

Also, a vehicle running on butanol has nearly the same range as one using gasoline, so less fuel is used, compared to ethanol. There are other benefits, as well, such as drastic reductions of CO, NOx and VOCs from tailpipe emissions, and more. If I could fill up my car with butanol today, I'd be doing it, instead of talking about it.

Look here:

This is one of a few companies researching and developing this process. I'm not affiliated in any way with this company or any other such company. (If I had loads of money, I would be. But, being one of the refugees of the tech-bubble crash of 2000, I'm on the sidelines.) But, I think that more people need to get behind companies like this: invest, collaborate, co-develop -- whatever it takes to move the R&D along. At the current rate, it'll be another 2-3 years before a single drop of butanol will be available for your fuel tank.

BTW, the process being developed by the company mentioned above not only produces butanol, but hydrogen, as well -- here's another source of hydrogen for fuel cells!


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