Unintended effects: the need for a proper assessment framework for agrofuels

Speech Published 07 Feb 2008 Last modified 13 Apr 2011
EEA Executive Director, Professor Jacqueline McGlade's speech at the EEAC Workshop, Brussels, Belgium, 29 January 2008

The need for action

It is a general fact that targets must be challenging but achievable at the same time.

The European Council has stated that Europe needs to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 60–80 % by 2050 in order to make its contribution to achieving the target of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees compared to pre-industrial levels. Such a target is challenging, but achievable.

However, if we do nothing about the growing emissions from several modes of transport (road, aviation, shipping), the transport sector alone will produce more emissions than the total allowance for Europe in 2050 from all sources. 

We really have got to get to grips with the constantly growing greenhouse gas emissions from transport, which has too long been a free rider in the climate mitigation world.

The IPCC highlights the need for early action to avoid overshooting the 2 degrees target. The Stern report shows how early action can limit the negative impacts on the economy considerably. We need ambitious interim emission targets — global and European — for 2020. The target European leaders set last March was to achieve a 20 % emission reduction by 2020 (or 30 % if all developed countries agree), a mandatory renewable energy target of 20 % by 2020 and a mandatory 10% share of biofuels in the overall transport fuel mix in 2020. The latter target was under the condition of production being sustainable and second generation technologies being commercially available. Last week the Commission proposed a directive that would make this target binding.

Today I would like to present the European Environment Agency's findings and expertise on the subject of biofuels under the heading 'unintended effects: the need for a proper assessment framework for agrofuels'. Among the key points I will make, let me highlight four at the outset:

  • First, that bioenergy more generally can play an important role in combating climate change, specifically through use of biomass in heat and electricity generation;
  • Second, that a further expansion of first generation agrofuels risks not achieving the required global and EU greenhouse gas emission reductions and can lead to further adverse effects on biodiversity, water and soil. I will also tackle the possible contribution of second generation biofuels.
  • Third, we need strong sustainability criteria for all energy uses of biomass, not only for agrofuels.
  • Fourth, we must keep the international dimension at the forefront of our minds — biomass for energy should not further contribute to the loss of virgin forests and savannahs, nor increase GHG emissions.

Let me start by addressing just what biofuels actually are.

So what are biofuels?

Biofuels can be petrol and diesel substitutes produced from crops by first generation technologies — agrofuels — or advanced biofuels produced in so-called second generation processes from agricultural, forestry or other biomass, often using waste or by–products.

Agrofuels have been hailed as an important way of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transport in the short term. At the same time, they may improve the security of energy supply by mobilising internal biomass resources in the EU or by diversifying imports. In the longer term, it is hoped that advanced biofuels will take over this role. However, will biofuels live up to this promise? The biofuel target is surrounded by more and more controversy, as has been widely reported in the European press.

The issues around agro- and advanced biofuels

So what's the problem?

The challenge is to ensure that promoting agrofuels and advanced biofuels to improve the environmental performance of the transport sector — greening transport — is not at odds with the wider goal of greening society at the global level. We need to consider all environmental aspects, inside of Europe and outside. Not just avoidance of greenhouse gas emissions, but also protection of biodiversity, water and soil resources.

It is essential that the broader bioenergy debate is not swallowed up by a discussion of biofuels alone. Biomass can also be used to replace fossil fuels in electricity and heat production. Biofuels and other energy uses of biomass are thus competing for the same resource — either directly, as the same crops can often be used for both purposes, or indirectly, because they are competing for land on which they are to be grown. And they are also competing for land with other agricultural production.

These simple facts mean that agrofuels, advanced biofuels and other bioenergy should in policy terms never be looked at in an isolated fashion, but always as a part of integrated policies to increase the use of renewables and in the framework of agricultural and international trade policies.

One of the major causes of global warming is agro-industrial farming itself. The use of chemical fertilisers introduces large amounts of nitrogen into the soil and nitrous oxide into the air. Moreover, deforestation, linked to the expansion of agriculture and energy crops especially in developing countries with large tropical rainforests, leads to massive carbon dioxide emissions (about 20 % of global emissions), since carbon stored in the soils is released (especially from peat lands).

The numbers being discussed at global level are extraordinary: the Indian government is talking of planting 14 million hectares of land with jatropha, the Inter-American Development Bank states that Brazil has 120 million hectares that could be cultivated with agrofuel crops, and an agrofuel group is speaking of 379 million hectares being available in 15 African countries.

We also need to consider the direct and the indirect effects of promoting agrofuels and other biomass for energy use. For example:

  • In Europe we might be able to produce oil from rapeseed for biodiesel in a sustainable manner, but that means that less rapeseed oil is available for food production inside and outside Europe. The gap might be filled in part by palm oil but this entails the loss of rainforest in countries such as Indonesia, and the potential for increased  numbers of bonded farmers in a form of plantation slavery.
  • Production of ethanol from sugar cane in Brazil to replace petrol might be sustainable in terms of direct effects, but again it seems as though food and feed production there (such as soybean) is being pushed into marginal areas, and into the rain forest enhancing deforestation. It is important to note that these knock-on effects can also have serious implications for traditional small scale farmers in developing countries who often do not have formal land ownership (e.g. possible loss of their livelihood and homes), in addition to environmental considerations.

If we now envisage further large scale growing of agrofuel crops and other biomass for energy use inside and outside Europe, savings of greenhouse gas emissions by using biofuels could easily be annulled for decades through emissions caused by deforestation, drying out of peat land, associated land use processes, fertiliser use for crop growing and the fuel production process.

EEA work in the field

So as I say, the challenge is global. Work we have done at the EEA analysing the situation in Europe can help shed light on some of the challenges and opportunities we face. Already in 2004 we published a briefing trying to raise awareness of the issues.

Since then, we have carried out work to identify the environmentally compatible biomass potential in Europe and to look at how to use the biomass in the way that delivers the greatest overall benefits in the form of avoided greenhouse gas emissions at least cost.

Producing energy biomass in an environmentally-compatible way

I firmly believe that bioenergy can play a significant role in achieving the 20 % renewables target by 2020. In 2006 the EEA published a report showing that up to 15 % of energy demand could be covered by bioenergy based on EU resources and projected energy demand in 2030 in an environmentally-compatible manner.

The sources of biomass analysed were agriculture, forestry and waste.

We used a set of environmental assumptions to ensure the biomass potential was environmentally compatible. The assumptions related especially to protecting biodiversity and promoting waste minimisation.

Last year, we published a further report looking at more detail at the issues pertaining to forests, and today we are publishing a similar report related to agriculture. In this report, the regional aspects of different cropping regimes are tested, so changes relating to climate span out over the next three decades.

An important assumption in all of our work in this area has been that bioenergy crops would not be grown at the expense of food crops. Liberalisation of the agricultural sector in Europe, reduced subsidies and productivity increases in the agricultural sector were however expected to free up land in Europe for bioenergy production. In this way, the issue of competition between bioenergy and food and feed stocks could be avoided.

As I highlighted earlier though, in the real world this competition is very real and growing, due to the fact that world demand for food, feed and bioenergy are all growing strongly. This means that the actual potential for biomass for energy is likely to be smaller than calculated in order to avoid negative environmental impacts from indirect land use change.

Even so, the potential is substantial and the EEA studies show that bioenergy can make a substantial contribution to reaching the overall EU renewable energy target.

I should also underline that just because the environmentally-compatible potential is there, it doesn’t necessarily mean that its exploitation will be carried out in an environmentally-compatible way. There is therefore a strong need for integrated energy, agricultural and environmental policies to ensure that this is the case. The criteria set out in the proposal adopted by the Commission last week address these issues inside and outside Europe, but they are already under heavy fire for being insufficient. Indeed the growing concern about the lack of scrutiny and truceability of bioenergy production outside Europe may mean that a more prudent course of action would be to set domestic targets for bioenergy before expanding demand beyond European borders.

The optimal use of biomass

Since publishing the report in 2006, the EEA has done further work to investigate the best ways of using the biomass potential in Europe up to 2030. The picture which is beginning to emerge is very clear:

There is little doubt at the present time that using biomass to replace coal in electricity and heat production gives far higher reductions in greenhouse gas emissions at far lower cost than producing and using agrofuels for transport.

Having said that, I should point out that there is as yet no generally agreed way of calculating greenhouse gas emissions over the life cycle for different bioenergy options. The directive proposal that the Commission adopted last week contains some numbers. But there is no EU, never mind globally-agreed standard methodology and database on which such figures can be based. Reaching firstly EU and secondly global agreement on a methodology would greatly improve the transparency and accountability of policies promoting bioenergy.

Looking further into the future, the scale of development of second generation biofuels will be crucial. They may have greater greenhouse gas savings; be grown on land not suitable for conventional agriculture; have lower input requirements than conventional crops; and be higher yielding per hectare than conventional crops. However, there is a lot of doubt as to whether second generation biofuels will be commercially available in time at sufficiently large scale to contribute substantially to meeting the 2020 biofuel target. Moreover, they may even be competing with hydrogen or electricity options.


Let me now conclude by highlighting that:

  1. Bioenergy can play an important role in combating climate change, specifically through use of biomass in heat and electricity generation. The most cost-effective greenhouse gas emission reduction policies should promote the use of bioenergy as such, rather than agrofuels specifically.
  2. A further expansion of first generation agrofuels risks not achieving the required global and EU greenhouse gas emission reductions and can lead to further adverse effects on biodiversity, water and soil.
  3. Second generation biofuels can lead to more greenhouse gas emission reductions and reduce other adverse environmental effects compared to agrofuels. However, this is only valid up to a certain amount of land (globally as well as in the EU) and this needs further investigation. Therefore more analysis on second generation biofuels is needed: when will they become commercially available, which technologies to use and what is their potential, how much land is needed, how to enhance their development and implementation?
  4. In parallel, we need more work on developing other policies to reduce emissions, such as measures being discussed on CO2 emission reduction from new passenger cars, but also policies aimed at modal shift towards lower carbon modes of transport.
  5. We need strong sustainability criteria for all energy uses of biomass, not only for agrofuels, and effective means of monitoring land use change for biomass crops (particularly in developing countries), and mechanisms to ensure compliance with the criteria.
  6. We also need common EU-wide and even globally agreed greenhouse gas emission methodologies and databases across the life cycle of different bioenergy pathways.
    And finally:
  7. We must keep the international dimension at the forefront of our minds. We started losing rain forest long before the substantial use of energy crops and biofuels were ever dreamt of. The world’s need for food is already a very important driver of land use change. Biomass for energy should not further contribute to the loss of virgin forests and savannahs, nor increase GHG emissions. So we really need a much wider global debate on how to halt loss of biodiversity and address climate change at the same time and also take into account the global need for increased food production. One approach could be to include  deforestation into a global post-2012 climate change agreement. It will also mean a need for setting of criteria for sustainable agriculture and forestry for whatever purpose and to enforce these in the EU and elsewhere and monitor progress of implementation carefully. In the meantime, Europe should seek to generate as much bioenergy as possible domestically whilst sustaining a balance between food, fuel and fibre production, and without compromising ecosystem services.

Let's move on from agrofuels, and be hard-headed about advanced biofuels. In this way the EU can take the lead in building a truly sustainable bioenergy sector in Europe and worldwide.


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