Plans to make European motorists use more biofuels could take an area the size of Ireland out of food production by 2020 and accelerate climate change, a study has found.
The report by the independent Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) is based on plans that countries have submitted to the EU detailing how they intend to meet their legal requirement to include 10% of renewable energy in all transport fuels by 2020.
IEEP calculations suggest that the indirect effect of the switch will be to take between 4.1m and 6.9m hectares out of food production. In addition, say the authors, opening up land to compensate for the food taken out of production will lead to between 27m and 56m tonnes of additional CO² emissions, the equivalent of putting nearly 26m more cars on the road.
The study says European countries have chosen to meet the EU renewable energy targets by importing so-called first generation biofuels from African countries or from Indonesia and Brazil, rather than by promoting the use of advanced biofuels, electric vehicles or energy efficiency to reduce the environmental impact of transport.
“The renewable energy directive was adopted to help combat climate change, however, through promoting the use of conventional biofuels with no consideration of indirect land use change impacts it has the potential to actually increase the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions.
“It is vital that this situation is rectified and these impacts are urgently addressed within EU law,” said David Baldock, director of IEEP.
Development groups which commissioned the report said the effect of the EU legislation would be felt around the world and urged the EU to drop the 10% biofuels goal.
“Making space for biofuel production will force other farming activity in producer countries deeper into forests,” said a spokesman for ActionAid. “This displacement of farming activity will cause loss of wildlife habitats, and carbon dioxide emissions – as well as increasing food prices, hitting some of the world’s poorest people hardest.”
Friends of the Earth’s biofuels campaigner, Kenneth Richter, said: “Using more biodiesel in our cars won’t help to green transport – this research shows that when the full impact of their production is taken into account, biofuels cause more emissions than the fossil fuels they replace.”
“Trees will be cleared, wetlands will be under threat and a range of species will be pushed to the brink if these proposals go ahead,” said RSPB director of international operations Tim Stowe.
Europe’s move to biofuels compares with a 7.6% target by 2022 in the US. Last week the US agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, said a further $500m (£310m) would be made available in subsidies to grow biofuel crops over the next 15 years . Most of the money would go to extracting fuel from non-food plants.
ActionAid claimed this year that European biofuel targets could result in up to 100 million more hungry people, increased food prices and landlessness.
The United Nations has singled out biofuel demand as a major factor in what it estimates will be as much as a 40% increase in food prices over the coming decade.