European enthusiasm for biofuels has come up against the realities of taking agricultural space that many say should be used for food production

Brussels has been buffeted in recent months by a rancorous battle over biofuels. The dispute originates in a decision taken by Europe’s lawmakers in 2008 that, by 2020, biofuels should make up 10% of the transport fuels consumed in Europe.

It seemed like a good idea – an emissions-cutting measure that would contribute to the European Union’s climate goals. But as time has passed and numerous detailed studies have been completed, biofuels have looked a less-attractive option.

Organisations such as ActionAid say the EU biofuels policy is leading to poverty in some countries, while its environmental benefits are questionable. Laura Sullivan, ActionAid head of European advocacy, said in a September statement that the policy means “more diversion of food to fuel, more use of scarce land for fuel and more food insecurity globally. This is not acceptable from an EU that says it is a global leader on development”.

Brussels has acknowledged that it got it wrong. In October 2012, a proposal was tabled to reduce the 2020 target for bioethanol and biodiesel produced from crops to 5%. The revision has infuriated the powerful biofuels lobby.

Conflicting pressures

A vote in the European parliament muddied the waters, with MEPs saying the target should be 6%, but opting to debate the matter further rather than to finalise their position. Corinne Lepage, a French MEP who is in charge of the biofuels dossier in the European parliament, says: “I have never seen such lobbying pressure on us.”

ActionAid says that, in any case, the damage is already being done. It has highlighted a project in Sierra Leone, Addax Bioenergy, as an example of the consequences of the EU’s policy.

Addax Bioenergy takes up 14,300 hectares in northern Sierra Leone for a sugarcane plantation and ethanol refinery, which will produce, ActionAid says, “the first biofuels to be exported from Africa to Europe in commercial quantities”. And local people are not happy. An ActionAid survey found that 99% of local people say hunger is prevalent in the area, and 90% blame it on Addax. Nearly 80% of respondents say they had not seen any documentation of the Addax land-lease arrangements.

The investors behind Addax reject the allegations. In fact, they say, the project is an investment in one of the world’s poorest countries that should help lift people out of poverty. Partners in Addax include the African Development Bank and development finance institutions – organisations that channel public development funds – from Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden. The UK is also a partner through the Emerging Africa Infrastructure Fund (EAIF), which operates from London but is registered as a company in Mauritius.

Mahmoud Isa-Dutse, chair of EAIF, says: “All EAIF-supported projects are required to adhere to the IFC [International Finance Corporation] environmental and social performance standards, and must deliver tangible development impacts. EAIF believes that post-conflict countries such as Sierra Leone desperately need investments such as these which combine commercial viability with transformational development benefits.”

In Brussels, however, the inconclusive European parliament vote means the biofuels battle will rage on – and projects such as Addax will remain firmly in the spotlight.

agriculture  biofuels  energy  Food  natural resources 

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