A fashionable delusion about biofuels

An experimental site growing biofuels (picture TheFriendlyFiend / Flickr)

Interesting that Open Europe, the anti-European campaign group, has published a report criticising the EU policy on biofuels. Read a summary of the report here and the whole report here.

Why are opponents of the EU choosing its biofuel policy as target? They are right that there is something wrong with biofuels, but wrong to draw conclusions about the EU as a result.

First, the biofuels. They are a type of fuel derived from agricultural crops such as wheat, maize and sugar cane which, because they come from crops rather than from fossil fuels, do not add net carbon dioxide to the atmosphere when they are burned. That is the theory.

In practice, however, biofuels need fossil fuels when they are grown, for sowing, pest control, fertilising, harvesting and refining. As a result, their net emission of carbon dioxide can be substantial. And if rainforests and other natural habitats are grubbed up in order to plant biofuel crops in the first place (as happens with palm oil plantations in south east Asia), their carbon dioxide output can actually be even worse than that of fossil fuels. (A friend of mine suggests that they should be called agrofuels, not biofuels: the word biofuel implies something natural, which biofuels resoundingly are not.)

While the production of biofuels within Europe itself does not lead to the destruction of rainforests, it does divert crops which might otherwise be used for food. This leads to a rise in food prices, which falls particularly hard on the poor.

For these reasons, the idea that biofuels can provide a simple replacement for petrol is wrong. But if the notion that everyone can carrying on driving their cars as they did before is a delusion, it is a delusion that is widely shared.

But there is a second delusion, which is Open Europe’s alone, which is that it makes sense to criticise the EU on the strength of its biofuels policy.

After all, the biofuel policy about which they are complaining was agreed by unanimity, their preferred method of decision-making. This is the European Council acting in its much-vaunted strategic capacity. If Open Europe objects to the supranational elements of the EU system, preferring the intergovernmental parts, they should be careful what they wish for. Intergovernmentalism often dodges the difficult decisions because of the overriding need for unanimity. (The Financial Times carried a comment on the subject here.)

The second mistake they make is to imagine that biofuels can be separated from the rest of the EU’s energy policy. I have already noted the severe limitations on the ability of biofuels to take over from fossil fuels in powering our present economy, but that does not mean there is no place for them in the future. Energy policy has to balance out several different concerns – environmental sustainability, economic competitiveness, security of supply – and the resort to biofuels is actually part of this wider energy policy. Within the single market, given that we have so many common interests with our neighbours in this field, energy policy has to have a European dimension.

And thirdly, it is a mistake to suppose that if the UK were not part of the EU policy, things would be any different. As I have said, biofuels are fashionable right now. The Americans are developing biofuel production of their own, for the same reasons and with the same weaknesses as in Europe. Neil O’Brien, director of Open Europe, has complained about the number of lobbyists in Brussels, as if this was the cause of the EU adopting the wrong policy. Does he really suppose that there are none in London or in Washington DC?

And, if the supposed power and influence of lobbyists is a concern, then that is another reason to support the Lisbon Treaty. The treaty will bring an unprecedented level of openness and scrutiny to the decision-making of the EU. Open Europe ought to support this change, not oppose it.

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