Yesterday I participated in a discussion in the European Parliament building about biofuel policy, and then afterwards attended a dinner to continue the discussion.  In attendance were officials from the European Commission, MEPs from across the continent, farmers, academics and environmental organisations like ourselves.  The RSPB was there as the UK partner of the BirdLife International partnership.

My last blog sums up pretty well what I thought about biofuels on my way to Brussels and that hasn´t changed over the last day.  What has changed is my concern about the EU (and UK) policies on the subject - my concerns have grown!

We heard from some distinguised academic and knowledgeable speakers that current policies could allow (and indeed encourage) the destruction of half of the world´s remaining rainforest by the end of the century, that biofuel production will raise food prices and worsen food shortages and that the greenhouse gas savings are variable and depend crucially on biofuel production not fuelling the destruction of carbon-rich habitats.  The technical accounting rules are not even sorted out properly yet.

These issues, concerns and problems have been known for years, they are accepted widely by decision-makers and yet the EU ploughs on with policies that encourage biofuel production at accelerating rates over the next few years.  Most people know that when they are in a hole they should stop digging but I fear that when 27 government hands are on the spade it is more difficult to stop.  And decision-makers often fall into a terrible error of wishful thinking - they assume that where it is possible for the right thing or the wrong thing to happen then the right thing will happen.  Does that sound like real life to you? 

I was talking to Tim Searchinger about this at the event yesterday, he is an American academic who thinks more clearly about biofuels than just about anyone else, and speaks with admirable clarity too.  I like his style (and that is only partly because he and I agree pretty much completely on this subject!).  He calls the ability of decision-makers to hope for the unlikely good to happen their believe in a reverse-Murphy´s Law - however many times you give the toast the opportunity to fall on the buttered side it will always fall the other way!

I am, personally, a committed European.  My culture is the culture of Beethoven, Voltaire and Picasso as well as Elgar, Shakespeare and Turner, and of AC Milan and Real Madrid as well as Rushden and Diamonds and Bristol Rovers.  And EU environment policies have generally served wildlife very well across our continent, but our policies, our European policies, on biofuels are wrong-headed and lead to a severe loss of natural beauty far from our own territorial borders.  We are vandals at a distance because we now know how wrong-headed these policies are.  We cannot say we are acting in ignorance - quite the opposite - we are acting despite knowing the consequences of our actions.  How can that be right for a cultured continent?

Anonymous
  • How about this for a terrible negative attitude that always seems to happen.After the campaign by conservation groups,NFU and ministry etc for farmers to be more conservation minded or it would be forced on them the Farmers Weekly did a poll of around 400 farmers(can't they count)and gave the headline FARMERS COOL ON GREEN PLAN.The poll found almost half those questioned were reluctant to implement voluntary environmental measures on their farms.Now from where I stand that shows that more than half would be happy to do it and so the headline should have been FARMERS KEEN TO TAKE ON BOARD THE GREEN PLAN.Of course each succeeding year neighbours would gradually come on board until hopefully most would be doing it voluntarily.My conclusion is what a lot of PLONKERS they are at Farmers Weekly they almost always get things wrong.

  • Theres a really fundamental issue here: the risk that in tackling global warming we end up creating a new round of massive environmental damage - which is what always happens when it is decided that something is of overiding importance. There is a bitter irony this time round as we are doing all this specifically to save the planet.

    We have to move away from the disastrous extreme capitalist approach which demands that one simple objective must be maximised, usually regardless of the damage to other interests, to one where we give a bit to optimise benefits. Good examples closer to home are harnessing tidal power in the Severn Estuary - does this valuable environment have to be destroyed in the name of renewable energy ? Almost certainly not - if we accept perhaps a little less power, a little more cost we can probably have it all. Similarly, if we are to have energy crops in the UK do they have to be intensive Miscanthus grass farmed as vigorously as wheat or could we concede a little yield and have well designed woodland which is good for wildlife, walking, flood management and a range of other benefits ?

  • Find it hard to comment when I agree with everything you say but anyway that is a good thing in itself as I  know I have found too much to criticise lately so very pleased for something less controversial as far as I am concerned.