Transport is estimated to be responsible for about 25% of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Biofuels are seen as a possible means to reduce these emissions. They are, though, under heavy discussion in terms of economic cost benefits and their environmental and social impacts.
The EU has set a target of 5.75% share of biofuels in the transport section for all EU Member States by 2010, and a target of 10% to be reached by 2020.
Currently, the biofuel crops consist mainly of commonly known arable crops, such as cereals, maize or rape seed. Increasing the share of these crops could lead to the expansion of cultivated areas, and in turn, to an increasing pressure on the environment, habitat loss and biodiversity decrease, especially if forest, as grassland, peatland and wetlands – thought of as being ‘economically unproductive’ – are converted into monoculture plantations for biofuels crops.
The so-called second generation biofuel crops, produced from nonfood, ligno-cellulosic materials such as wood, energy grass or any other cellulosic biomass, which are being developed, seems to offer a good alternative. The effects of their production on biodiversity are estimated to be less drastic than that of regular arable crops.
A recent paper by a team of researchers led by Jeannette Eggers – Is biofuel policy harming biodiversity in Europe? – presents a new method of assessing biodiversity impacts resulting from changing land use due to the production of biofuel crops in Europe, distinguishing between arable (first generation) and woody (second-generation) crop types. In particular, the researchers question two different scenarios: what might happen if we doubled the current EU biofuel target of 5.75%, and what might happen if we abolished the current biofuel target.
For the sake of the study, while biodiversity as such includes all forms of life, their impact assessment was restricted to a set of 313 species pertaining to four taxonomical groups.
The results indicate that more species might suffer from habitat losses rather than benefit from a doubled biofuel target, while abolishing the biofuel target would mainly have positive effects.
However, the possible impacts vary spatially and depend on the choice of biofuel crop, with woody crops being less detrimental than arable crops.
The results give an indication for policy and decision makers of what might happen to biodiversity under a changed biofuel policy in the European Union. The presented approach is considered to be innovative as to date no comparable policy impact assessment has been applied to such a large set of key species at the European scale.