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Jathropa crop

Land previously used to grow food is being switched over to Jathropha plantations to meet demand for biofuels (Atul Loke/Panos Pictures/ActionAid)

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UK scientists launch scathing criticism of EU biofuel targets

Ecologist

2nd June, 2011

Claims that biofuels have lower greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels are 'complete nonsense' and EU-wide targets to increase their use should be scrapped says letter to transport minister

A global 'land grab' and increased loss of forests and other natural ecosystems is being driven by European targets for more transport fuel to come from biofuels, say a group of prominent UK scientists.

The EU has a target for 10 per cent of total transport fuel to be derived from renewable sources by 2020. Observers estimate the vast majority of these targets will be met by biofuels, mainly sourced from food crops, such as oil seeds, palm oil, sugar cane, beet and wheat.

The UK is currently aiming to reach 5 per cent of fuel from renewable sources by 2013 and admits that 90 per cent or more of the increase to 10 per cent by 2020 will be met by crop-based biofuels.

The biofuels target was originally designed to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions but in a letter sent to the transport minister Philip Hammond, and seen by the Ecologist, 19 prominent scientists from across the UK say crop-based biofuels will actually 'substantially increase emissions'.

According to the scientists, in a rush to promote biofues both the UK and EU had failed to take account of two factors - the high-use of nitrogen fertilisers and land-use change brought about by the increasing demand for land to grow biofuel crops instead of food.

'The additional demand for grains, oilseeds and sugars brought about by increased biofuel production will indirectly bring about the conversion of land currently under forest or other natural ecosystem into agricultural land, with the concomitant release into the atmosphere of carbon stored in trees and soil,' says the letter.

Professor Keith Smith, of University of Edinburgh, one of the letter's co-authors, says the release of carbon dioxide would be 'huge' compared to the savings from the crops taking in CO2 from the atmosphere to grow. He says another factor, emissions related to fertiliser-use, was also being ignored.

'There has been a naivety that biofuels are carbon neutral but when we count the fossil fuel energy going into biofuels from fertiliser use and then also the nitrous oxide emissions from using nitrogen fertilisers, the emissions are even higher,' says Professor Smith.

Both the UK and EU have been under heavy pressure from environmentalists ever since they announced the targets for biofuels. In April a high-profile report from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics called the targets 'unethical' because they contributed to higher greenhouse gas emissions, food price rises and deforestation.

A UK consultation on how it will meet its renewable fuel targets is due to close today. In their open letter the scientists urge the UK to 'provide leadership' by only accepting biofuels that are proven to reduce emissions and do not contribute to food insecurity or conflicts over land.

Action Aid, which claims the biofuels targets will lead to massive surge in hunger in less industrialised countries, has urged the UK to look at obtaining biofuels from real waste rather than crops and promoting electric cars as alternatives to meeting the EU renewable transport targets.

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