EU signals retreat on biofuels target


European energy ministers have backed away from the EU's biofuels for transport target, admitting a gross confusion on their part in which they said they had been misreading policy documents since the target was initially proposed eighteen months ago.

The ministers, meeting in Paris for informal discussions, said that upon closer inspection, EU proposals that aim for a target of 10 percent of fuels for cars and lorries coming from biofuels by 2020, in fact only demand that 10 percent of fuels come from renewable sources - which may or may not be the controversial energy source.

"The member states realised that the commission's plan specifies that 10 percent of transport needs must come from renewable energy - not 10 percent from biofuels - " French energy and environment minister Jean-Louis Borloo told reporters at the conclusion of the meeting.

Until now, it was believed that EU leaders last spring agreed that the EU should increase the use of biofuels in transport fuel to 10 percent by 2020 - up from a planned 5.75 percent target to be achieved by 2010.

Jochen Homann, a state secretary in the German Ministry of Economics and Technology said he and his colleagues had "discovered" that the documents "do not speak of biofuels, but renewables" - according to AFP. "We have to decide if the quota can be kept" - Mr Homann said. "It might be changed."

The retreat comes after months of pressure on the EU and US from environmental groups, development NGOs and international institutions - such as the World Bank and the United Nations - to adjust or abandon their biofuels policies.

Until a year ago, the alternative fuel source had widely been seen as a green alternative to petrol that also allowed European and developing world farmers to benefit from new markets for their crops. At the international level however, there is now broad consensus that production of many biofuels releases as many greenhouse gases as the use of fossil fuels and that they have contributed to the global food crisis as farmers switch to growing crops for fuel instead of food.

The coup de grace for EU biofuels policy seems to have come when a recent confidential internal World Bank report - leaked to the UK's Guardian newspaper - concluded that biofuels were responsible for 75 percent of the skyrocketing rise in food prices.

Mr Borloo said that the policy could instead be interpreted to mean the deployment of hydrogen fuel cells or electric cars using electricity from alternative sources.

Nonetheless, despite the rereading, there has been no official policy change proposed.

Meanwhile, the ministers are mulling over a proposal for a biofuels accord with Brazil. Green MEP Claude Turmes, the deputy responsible for shepherding renewable energy legislation through the European Parliament, has suggested that the EU reach a bilateral agreement with the South American country, the biggest producer of bioethanol in the world.

"My analysis shows the only country where we can sustainably import substantial quantities of agri-fuels to the EU at the moment is Brazil" - Mr Turmes said following the meeting, according to Reuters.