Biofuels pitfalls need more study, say conferees

Amid the current clamor for biofuels development came cautions from a number of speakers at the first International Biofuels Conference in Brussels July 5-6.

Doris Leblond
OGJ Correspondent

BRUSSELS, July 11 -- Amid the current clamor for biofuels development came cautions from a number of speakers at the first International Biofuels Conference in Brussels July 5-6 that biofuels are "no panacea" and that potential drawbacks need to be identified and avoided.

Biofuels are being touted by many as an alternative to fossil fuels for transportation and for combating climate change, bolstering energy supply security, and benefiting farmers.

However the European Union's External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, who organized the conference, warned, "We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the potential drawbacks. We need to analyze them and avoid them."

Ferrero-Waldner said an analysis should be carried out at the international level because "the benefits and risks of developing biofuels on a grand-scale have to be tackled as part of an international agenda."

The consensus among the speakers was that no country—even the US—could deal alone with the challenges of climate change and energy security and that convergent international standards for biofuels should be developed in line with their global trading.

"Biofuel policy is not ultimately an industrial policy or an agricultural policy—it is an environmental policy, driven above all by the greenest outcomes," said EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson.

"We do not usually think about the immense complexity of the infrastructure that supplies our energy," Mandelson said in an effort to temper what he called "an environmentally unsustainable stampede" towards biofuels production. "No industry works with a longer time horizon: It takes 5 years to build a pipeline, 10 years for a power station or refinery. So we must recognize the need for a stable regulatory framework, and for dependable signals from governments to guide investment and trade."

Promising that the EU's energy policy target of a 10% share of biofuels for transport by 2020—a nearly sevenfold increase—would be "binding," EU Energy Commissioner Andris Pielbags insisted that it also must be "sustainable." The directive giving legal backing to the policy will set minimum sustainability standards for both domestically produced and imported biofuels, he said, adding, "We must aim at the earliest possible entry into the market of 'second generation' biofuels," which are not food-related.

Claude Mandil, executive director of Paris-based International Energy Agency, told OGJ that the positive aspect of the conference, which he cochaired, was that it showed a "passing from poetry to serious thinking."

While biofuels served to diversify motor fuels, speakers recognized that biofuels must be produced and consumed in a sustainable manner, taking care to maintain biodiversity, prevent adverse impacts on world food prices and availability, and ensure that its production does not require more energy than it provides. And he stressed the need for a consensus on reaching international biofuels standards.

Like other speakers, Mandil did not view biofuels as "a panacea" pointing out that, despite an impressive number of projects existing or planned, biofuels would not in the foreseeable future account for more than 5-10% of world transport consumption and will never replace oil. He further warned: "Oil-producing countries must not be worried to the extent of curtailing oil development."

Ferrero-Waldner said the initial conference was only a first step towards a "transparent and frank dialogue with all partners" in order to work towards a credible and sustainable international market and convergence in biofuels standards."

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