Reducing ethanol in fuel to protect food prices | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 14.09.2012
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Reducing ethanol in fuel to protect food prices

The EU has decided to reduce its biofuel quota for transportation from 10 percent down to only five percent by 2020. What was once considered a clean solution to climate change is becoming a threat to food security.

The EU had originally planned to raise the percentage of ethanol in gasoline to 10 percent by 2020 in order to reduce CO2 emissions. However, a debate over the correlation between biofuel and world food prices has politicians changing their minds. EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard and EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger want to reduce the quota to five percent.

The debate has diminished the allure of agrofuels in European politics, says Jürgen Maier, director of the Environment and Development Forum in Berlin.

The German Environment and Development Forum director, Jürgen Maier

Jürgen Maier is the director of the German Environment and Development Forum

The forum is the coordination office for German NGOs that advocate sustainable development policies on the international stage. Its members have been warning about the risks of relying more on biofuels for years. They argue that an increase in agrofuel production would raise food prices on the world market, which would mean that the world's poorest populations could no longer afford food staples.

Fluctuating food prices

Currently, gasoline can contain between 5 and 10 percent ethanol in the European Union. Since 2011, the controversial E10 gasoline consisting of 10 percent ethanol has been available in Germany. German Minister of Development Dirk Niebel has already voiced his concerns about this very issue.

"The argument that our oversized cars feed on the backs of those who are starving in Africa has appalled many people," said Maier. "The outrage over it has simply become too big."

Maier worries about the food prices on the world market, which are becoming ever more unstable. The price fluctuations aren't just making it more and more difficult and expensive to provide food in the poorest countries, he stated.

A child dressed in a red shirt carries three big ears of corn down a path, along a lush green field in the background

Biofuels were once the golden child of the green movement

"It's a problem for the landowners, too, because they have to make investments and calculate how they'll get by."

Using grains, corn, soy and canola for agrofuel influences food prices, but other factors affect the prices as well, explained Maier. The forum director sees the biggest influences coming from, first, food price speculation on the stock market, followed by increasing meat consumption in emerging nations and finally, the demand for biofuel.

"You have to do something about all of the factors," he said, adding that in Europe's case, "[it] has significantly more avenues of influencing agrofuel policies than the demand for meat in China."

Biofuel production isn't eco-friendly

Originally, the European Union had set a goal of an EU-wide biofuel quota of 10 percent, arguing that it would be beneficial for the climate. However, using biofuel doesn't really reduce CO2 levels, according to Professor Jürgen Schmid, director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Wind Energy and Energy System Technology (IWES). He is also a member of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU).

Most notably, said Schmid, the fields are being used to produce fuel instead of food. "Because these areas aren't readily available, you have to go into vulnerable areas," he said.

That includes rain forests, the savannah and other sensitive regions, "where a large amount of emissions are released into the atmosphere that you can't make up for." In a 2008 report, the WBGU warned about the risks of introducing biofuels. The scientists recommended an expansion of electromobility instead for the transportation sector.

Professor Dr. Jürgen Schmid pictured

Biofuels have a deceptively large carbon footprint, says Dr. Jürgen Schmid

The automotive industry put the most pressure on the situation during the time that followed the WBGU's report, according to Schmid. "Back then, they were saying that using biofuel could also reduce emissions and they viewed biofuel as virtually emission-free. Of course, that's deceptive," he said.

Schmid explained that the carbon footprint for biofuel is so bad because it includes the emissions from land use. Plowing the fields releases greenhouse gases from the soil. Fuel for the agricultural equipment and production add to emissions as well.

"If the EU goal were reduced right now, it would be a step in the right direction. But going completely to zero would have been better," said Schmid.

Hope for biofuels

The current debate has been a long time coming, but no decision has been made on the EU level, explained the director of the German Agrofuel Industry Assocation (VDB), Elmar Baumann. Getting rid of the old biofuel quota is only a suggestion that still has to go through the EU Council and Parliament.

Fotograf: Hoffotografen Berlin Aufnahmeort: Berlin, 6.9.2010 Copyright: VDB Das Foto ist für die Verwendung bei der Deutschen Welle freigegeben, bitte den VDB als Quelle nennen.

Elmar Baumann still believes biofuels are the way forward

Baumann thinks the longer the decision takes, the more that will speak in favor of agrofuels. "Fossil fuels are becoming dirtier and dirtier and are producing more and more greenhouse gases, so agrofuels are competing with the worst [fuel] sources," he said.

The VDB director doesn't think there's a causal relationship between hunger and biofuel production. "It's just the opposite. What's introduced into the EU agrofuels is put there in order to put overproduction, the immense surplus of food, to good use," said Baumann.

Jürgen Maier from the Environment and Development Forum can't even muster a fake smile for Baumann's argument. "In reality, the entire EU doesn't have a surplus. Instead, we allocated 20 million hectars of land in South America for animal feed production for our cattle, pigs and chickens," he said.

Maier would rather see mobility supported through investments in railways and more energy efficient cars. "You can't have biofuel so that you can drive this or that SUV in big cities. It's simply perverse, especially coming from eco-friendly policies."

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