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Why Europe backpedals on biofuel targets

Ethanol and other biofuels are boosting food prices and greenhouse gases, says a new British report.

By Mark Rice-OxleyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 8, 2008

E85 Ethanol Fuel at a gas station in Hamburg, Germany.

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Europe is signaling a retreat from its bold commitment to biofuels as concern mounts that the plant-based alternative to gas and diesel, once heralded as a panacea for climate change, is contributing to spiraling global food prices.

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Officially, the 27-nation European Union is sticking to a target that will require 10 percent of motor vehicle fuel to be derived from renewable sources by 2020, as part of overall efforts to reduce carbon emissions by 20 percent.

But official backpedaling is on the rise. The British government indicated Monday it would take a more cautious approach following an official report that raised multiple warnings about the technology, specifically that it contributes to high food prices and may create more greenhouse gas emissions than it prevents.

The European Parliament meanwhile is to vote later this year on a proposal to lower the EU target to just 4 percent by 2015, after a committee of lawmakers supported the measure Monday.

Rumblings of disaffection with biofuels have resonated from French politicians, who pooh-poohed the 10 percent target last week, to Germany, where the government has scrapped tax breaks for green fuels.

“It would be foolhardy at the moment on the evidence that we have got to say we should go headlong in pursuit of biofuels,” Ed Gallagher told the BBC. He’s the author of the British report, which called for Britain’s own targets to be reduced. “At the moment, on the evidence that we have got, getting to 10 percent is going to be very difficult without causing environmental damage and an effect on food prices.”

Adrian Bebb of Friends of the Earth adds: “The political tide in Europe is turning against biofuels. Everyone realizes that it’s a crazy idea to use valuable land to grow crops for cars and not people. We are starting to see a pretty big retreat.”

Europe was an early adopter of biofuel targets and an eager producer of biodiesel (derived from plant oils, as opposed to ethanol which is derived from sugar and corn). In a continent that prides itself on its green credentials, political leaders were eager to make firm commitments to technology that could help combat climate change and reduce Europe’s dependency on energy imports.

But that determination has been sorely tested by the contention that devoting land to biofuels compounds a worldwide food shortage that has sent prices soaring and pushed millions of people into hunger. In a sign that global scepticism towards biofuels is growing, the G-8 nations as well as Mexico, Brazil, China, India, and South Africa insisted Tuesday at the G-8 summit in Japan that biofuels must be compatible with “food security.”

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