EU standards aim at ensuring an eco-friendly biofuel production. But are social and ecological impacts taken into account sufficiently? Photo: alh1, Flickr

Combating climate change through biofuels - at what cost?

Biofuels seem to be an important step in the fight against climate change, as they represent a renewable and less polluting alternative to fossil fuels. However, its agricultural production provokes controversial discussions. Several international organizations seek to raise awareness about the social and ecological impacts of the rising biofuel demand.

One of the EU's political priorities is the production and promotion of renewable energy. When adopting the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty that commits State Parties to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the EU committed to a 20 percent greenhouse gas reduction by 2020. To reach that goal, the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) was implemented in 2015. It is a policy that regulates the replacement of 10 percent of all transport fuels, with renewable energy sources (such as biofuels) in each EU member state.

Biofuels imported to the EU need to fulfill certain sustainability criteria listed in the RED. These are standards that aim at ensuring an eco-friendly biofuel production and do not harm biodiversity. The criteria determine that biofuels must achieve greenhouse gas savings of at least 35 percent in comparison to fossil fuels and that they cannot be grown in areas such as wetlands and forests. Despite these attempts to standardize sustainability, several non-governmental organizations argue that its social and ecological impacts are not sufficiently being taken into account.

The pitfalls of Biofuel
The US, Brazil and the EU consume 80 percent of global biofuel production, with the EU being the only region heavily relying on feedstock imports for biofuels and food to replace its own biofuel production. In 2008, around 41 percent of its biofuel was imported from the global south, where rising production leaves its traces.

Companies from high income countries operating in the global south have been accused of grabbing land for their production of biofuel crops. These projects are mostly supported by the World Bank and carried out in the name of development. The creation of employment and foreign direct investment inflows to low income countries are considered a step towards economic progress, but the local population is being deprived of its land, which ought to be their first source of food. In addition, they are often employed as seasonal workers, leaving them without any income for a certain period of time.

Besides the social side effects, these enormous agricultural projects have an immense impact on the ecosystem. Some of the pitfalls include land degradation through monocultures and the extensive use of water.

Food or Fuel?
There is an ongoing debate within the EU about what role biofuels should play. However, little is reported about the social and political consequences of its production in the respective countries and even less regarding the ecological aftermath that could follow.

The introduction of biofuels seems to be an important step in the battle against climate change. But farmers in many countries are paying a high price and the ecological impacts are still unforeseeable. On a global scale, we are observing a rising demand for food through the increase of the world population, while farmland is declining and simultaneously being used to grow crops for fuel instead of food. The result is an increase in food prices, to a great extent motivated by the EU's inexhaustible demand for biofuels.

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