It’s time to fix Europe’s dumbest climate policy

Deforestation, billions of euros wasted, and soaring food and fuel prices; the record against biofuels is overwhelming. Introduced to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, the burning of food crops for fuel has been an absolute disaster.

11 years ago, the European Union (EU) introduced a biofuels mandate as part of its Green Fuels Act. The proposal at the time was attractive: farmers would be supported to produce green fuel. This would reduce Europe’s emissions and increase its energy security. It is now abundantly clear that burning food crops in cars is not green. Biofuels have also failed to make Europe energy independent. Almost all of the growth since 2009 has come from imported raw materials such as palm oil.

Palm oil will be phased out of the EU biofuel mix. Soy will suffer the same fate if the European Parliament gets its way. But what about rapeseed, sunflower, wheat or maize? Isn’t it time we just stopped burning food staples?

This is a good time to ask this question. Compared to pre-pandemic levels and worsened by Russia’s war on Ukraine, two critical suppliers of food to the global market, the number of people facing acute food insecurity increased by more than 200 million to reach 345 million. Hunger and starvation bring indescribable misery and despair. The last time hundreds of millions of people went hungry on Europe’s borders, it led to civil unrest, war and ultimately a refugee crisis.

Meanwhile, Europe continues to burn food crops for free in its cars, vans and trucks, adding to rising global prices. Europe is burning 10,000 tons of wheat every day in cars. Of the soybean oil consumed in the European Union, a third is used by cars and trucks. For rapeseed and palm oil it is more than half.

It was always stupid. Now it has become indefensible.

Nor is it the work of the invisible hand or an evil society. This is the result of Europe’s own climate policy and its Green Fuels Act in particular.

The EU mandate on biofuels benefits a clique of biofuel producers, increasingly dominated by big oil companies, like Total or ENI, to the detriment of everyone else.

Some countries like Germany are considering drastically reducing the use of biofuels. Others like France (and on the other side of the Atlantic the United States) promote an even greater use of biofuels. Between January and May nearly 50,000 French have installed a (often subsidized) converter so they can start burning E85 ethanol which sells for half the price of gasoline thanks to state support.

The time has come for the EU to abolish its food biofuels mandate and end all other forms of support for food biofuels. Countries that accelerate the reduction of their consumption of biofuels must be supported and not penalised. Currently, biofuels are considered zero-emission fuels, making them an attractive tool for achieving national climate goals (effort sharing). The EU should offer flexibility to countries like Germany that want to meet their climate targets while reducing food biofuels.

And the farmers? They hardly benefited from EU green fuel legislation because almost all of the growth in biofuels came from imports. But as food crops are phased out, farmers need to be supported. There are many ways to make better use of the $17 billion we currently spend on biofuels per year. For example, governments could incentivize farmers to use their land to produce truly sustainable energy, such as wind or solar power.

In September, elected European parliamentarians have the opportunity to raise the bar. For years, the damage caused by biofuels was thought to be limited to the rainforests of remote places like Indonesia and Brazil. But as vegetable oil shelves empty and pasta prices soar, European consumers are beginning to sense the threat of rising food prices and the sheer folly of burning food crops in cars.