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Research: New Proposed EU Legislation - the Consequences of Biofuels on Land-Use must be Considered to a Greater Extent

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Recently, the EU parliament’s environmental committee proposed that crop-based biofuels should not be considered renewable, which would affect Sweden’s strategy for achieving a fossil-free transport fleet, among other things. According to two researchers from LUCSUS, it is a good thing that the EU is reviewing the legislation on biofuels. The far-reaching consequences of biofuels on land use – both within and outside the European Union’s borders – must be considered to a greater extent.

Sara Brogard and David Harnesk are researching how EU regulations on biofuels, in the form of the Renewable Energy Directive of 2009, have affected stakeholders that produce and distribute biomass in Sweden and Europe.

By studying the degree to which various biofuel production companies have adhered to a private certification system to gain access to the European biofuel market, David Harnesk has observed that many companies choose to leave the certification after a certain period, indicating a change in the dynamic within biofuel production.

- Over time, increasing numbers of companies choose to merge, which means that they need fewer certifications. More large-scale production also brings financial opportunities, as it enables delivery of biomass products to more markets than just the European biofuels market, he says.

This reinforces trends towards large-scale production of biofuels within Europe, as most of the producers for the European market are located within the EU, according to the researchers. This development could have an impact on conditions for small-scale farmers to grow crops.

- A shift towards a more large-scale production can be seen as a relatively small problem, since developments in other parts of agriculture are moving in the same direction. But the consequences of the EU’s biofuels policy now make it even more difficult to run small-scale and environmentally sustainable agriculture, says David Harnesk.

The researchers also investigated the effect of the EU’s biofuels policy on other parts of the world, above all in Tanzania. What happens when a new and major market for biomass is created? In the African country, they observed a similar shift towards large-scale agricultural investments, with greater focus on the cultivation of biomass for biofuel production within political circles and European donor organisations, even if companies do not deliver significant amounts to the European market in the end.

- In Tanzania, there were many biofuel projects that were never completed; often, companies bought up land which was subsequently not used. Or projects were started to cultivate crops for biofuels only for the investors to pull out later on, explains Sara Brogard.

They think this shows that the EU’s biofuels policy has had consequences far beyond Europe’s borders, and affects the actions of other countries on agricultural initiatives and investments.

- Especially in Africa, where a large part of the population sustains itself on small-scale agriculture, this shift could have major effects on people’s subsistence and access to land and water, for example.

According to the researchers, the design of the 2009 Renewable Energy Directive partly formed an obstacle to finding alternative solutions for conversion to a more sustainable use of fuel within the transport sector. This is because it also financially supports biofuels whose ability to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, but also to bring about wider environmental benefits, is questioned by many researchers.

- The transport sector must tackle the issue of drastically reducing travel by car, airplane and lorry. In the long term, we do not have the natural resources to grow the biomass which would be needed to replace fossil fuels completely, says David Harnesk.

The researchers think that the Renewable Energy Directive, in its current formulation, fails to take into account the social and equity aspects that the biofuel policy entails. This is due to the trend towards increased economic interest in land creating increased competition for a finite resource, while more companies are investing in biomass trade. This could make it more difficult for various groups, mainly in developing countries, to continue to use the land

- We think that politicians within the EU and Sweden must gain a greater understanding for how the use of biofuels can affect current and future land use from all sustainability aspects, and not focus exclusively on reducing emissions and on economic efficiency, he concludes. 
 

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