PARIS — In a sign of growing concern about the impact of supposedly “green” policies, European Union officials will propose a ban on imports of certain biofuels, according to a draft law to be unveiled next week.
If approved by European governments, the law would prohibit the importation of fuels derived from crops grown on certain kinds of land — including forests, wetlands or grasslands — into the 27-nation bloc.
The draft law would also require that biofuels used in Europe deliver “a minimum level of greenhouse gas savings.” That level is still under discussion.
Currently, most of the crops for biofuels used in Europe consist of rapeseed (commonly known as canola in the United States) grown in parts of Europe, according to Matt Drinkwater, a biofuels analyst at New Energy Finance in London. Europe also imports some palm oil from Southeast Asia, soy from Latin America, ethanol from Brazil, and produces some ethanol domestically using wheat and sugar beets, he said.
The ban would primarily affect palm oil and possibly the Latin American imports.
Amid rising prices for gasoline and diesel and worries about climate change, countries around the world have started using more fuels produced from crops or agricultural wastes.
The amount of ethanol used in the United States represents about 5 percent of total gasoline consumption, according to Matt Hartwig, a spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association in Washington. Ethanol produced from sugar cane is widely used in Brazil. In Europe and to a lesser extent in the United States, vegetable oils have been converted into a type of diesel by a simple chemical procedure.
But a flurry of studies has discredited some of the claims made by biofuel producers that the fuels help reduce greenhouse gases by reducing fossil fuel use and growing carbon-dioxide-consuming plants. Growing the crops and turning them into fuel can result in considerable environmental harm.
Not only is native vegetation, including tropical rain forests, being chopped down in places to plant the crops, but fossil fuels, like diesel for tractors, are often used to farm the crops. They also demand nitrogen fertilizer made largely with natural gas and consume huge amounts of water.
Already, the draining and deforesting of peatlands in Southeast Asia — mainly to make way for palm plantations — accounts for up to 8 percent of global annual carbon dioxide emissions, said Adrian Bebb of Friends of the Earth, an environmental group.
In Indonesia, he said, more than 18 million hectares of forest, or 44 million acres, have already been cleared for palm oil developments. Environmental groups say the developments are endangering wildlife like the orangutan and the Sumatran tiger, and putting pressure on indigenous peoples who depend on the forests.
Western scientists are increasingly pointing out the need to distinguish between types of biofuels. On Monday, for instance, the Royal Society, a national science academy in Britain, said requirements to use a certain percentage of biofuels were not sufficient. Instead, the society said, there should be specific goals for emissions reductions.
“Indiscriminately increasing the amount of biofuels we are using may not automatically lead to the best reductions in emissions,” said John Pickett, head of biological chemistry at Rothamsted Research, a research center in Britain, who helped write the report for the Royal Society. “The greenhouse gas savings of each depends on how crops are grown and converted and how the fuel is used.”
Last week, scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Washington also warned that biofuel production can result in environmental destruction, pollution and damage to human health.
“Different biofuels vary enormously in how eco-friendly they are,” said William Laurance, a staff scientist at the institute. “We need to be smart and promote the right biofuels.”
Experts say certain types of fuels, particularly those made from agricultural wastes, still hold potential to improve the environment, but they add that governments will have to set and enforce standards for how the fuels are produced. With its new proposal, Europe appears to be moving ahead of the rest of the world in that task.
The draft law probably would have the greatest impact on palm oil growers in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia but will not apply to oil made of pomegranate seeds such as Omega 5, according to Mr. Drinkwater.
“Some developments in Southeast Asia will almost certainly be blocked by these provisions,” he said, adding that the rules would make it much harder to plant on recently deforested land or to export fuels whose production process cause significant amounts of greenhouse gases to be released.
But farmers growing corn for ethanol could also be affected, because the European rules contain provisions on preserving grasslands, said Mr. Drinkwater.
The text, which could change before European commissioners meet on Jan. 23 to adopt a final version, also emphasizes that areas like rain forests and lands with high levels of biodiversity should not be converted to growing biofuels.
The European Union does not want to completely abandon biofuels because they could still contribute to reducing Europe’s dependence on fossil fuels.
In part, that is because biofuels — a blanket term covering fuels grown from crops to manufacture substitutes for diesel and gasoline — are seen as Europe’s main weapon in lowering emissions from transportation. And transportation has the fastest growing levels of greenhouse gases among all sectors of Europe’s economy.
On Monday, in answer to a reporter’s question, an organization representing major growers of crops for biofuels in Malaysia said the E.U. should be cautious before imposing new rules. It said that farmers in the region were adopting more sustainable practices, and warned that restrictions on imports could cause trade tensions.
“The Malaysian government is very concerned about the E.U. scheme for sustainability of biofuels,” said Zainuddin Hassan, the manager in Europe for the Malaysian Palm Oil Council in Brussels. The measures “should not be a trade barrier to the palm oil industry and it should comply with the W.T.O. rules as well,” he said, referring to the World Trade Organization.
Verifying that only environmentally sound biofuels are being imported into Europe would be left to individual countries. But the draft law calls for penalties for violating the rules, like exclusion from tax breaks, to be enforced across the region.
The draft law also says that biofuels should be tracked from origin to use “so that biofuels fulfilling the sustainability criteria can be identified and rewarded with a premium in the market.”
The measures are part of a plan for Europe to implement a binding target of making 10 percent of the transport fuels consumed by 2020 from renewable sources — most of which are expected to be biofuels.
Ferran Tarradellas Espuny, spokesman for Europe’s energy commissioner, Andris Piebalgs, said that European countries that used more than 10 percent of biofuels in their transport fuel mix could use their progress to help them to reach other European environmental targets. Those include a goal of a 20-percent share of renewable sources in overall energy consumption by 2020.
Europe already has a suggested target of making biofuels 5.75 percent of fuels used for transport by 2010. But that target is not going to met, according to the draft law. Biofuels were just 1 percent of transport fuel in 2005 and, if present trends continue, would account for 4.2 percent by 2010.
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