Oil seed rape loses its glow
Fewer oil seed rape fields may be seen in Britain following adjustments to EU policy. It's quite a complex story, but there are two big lessons to be learnt from it. First, individual planting decisions on farms are directly affected by the EU policy (although there are agronomic advantage to oil seed rape - known as canola in North America - as a break crop). Second, well-intended environmental interventions may have unforeseen consequences that cancel out the advantages it was hoped that would be gained (although we are in contested territory here).
Back in 2008 it was agreed by the EU that as part of the effort to combat global warming, each member state should derive at least 10 per cent of their transport fuels from renewable sources by 2020. However, since then there has been renewed concern about global food shortages. Biodiesels are only one and by no means the most important factor in such shortages: but their use can be influenced by policy decisions. Environmental groups have also argued that the EU policy encourages farmers in countries such as Indonesia to cut down forests that act as carbon sinks to grow crops for use as fuel in Europe, thus making global warming worse.
The canary yellow fields are a major feature of the summer landscape in Britain and have even become a niche attraction for Japanese tourists. They also contribute to biodiversity as the flowers are favoured by pollinating bees and birds nest in the stems.
UK rapeseed production rose 70 per cent in the decade to 2011, amounting to roughly 40 per cent of the land planted with wheat. Roughly one-fifth of British rapeseed oil production goes into biodiesel. Farmers are now likely to switch into wheat which, of course, is in a sense the intention of the policy modification.
There is, however, fierce resistance from the biodiesel industry to the draft proposals who are crying foul. They invested heavily in refining capacity based on the 2008 rule change.
The Commission has, in fact, watered down its original proposals, but has only succeeded in upsetting both camps. Environmentalists claim that the proposals do not go far enough, the industry that they go too far.
Some of this is very technical, but food crop-based biofuels are still to be banned from contributing more than 5 per cent of transport fuel consumed in the EU. 'We are sending a clear signal that future increases in biofuels must come from advanced biofuels. Everything else will be unsustainable,' said EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard when unveiling the proposal in Brussels.'
Rob Vierhout, secretary general of advanced biofuel producers ePure went as far as to claim the Commission is 'NGO-driven' but there was little evidence that there was a great deal of satisfaction from that side either. 'If this proposal becomes law, biofuels more damaging to the climate than crude oil will still be used to meet green transport targets,' Greenpeace’s EU transport policy director Franziska Achterberg claimed.
Anti-poverty charity ActionAid called the proposed 5 per cent biofuels limit on food-based biofuels an 'important symbolic first step,' but called for a total ban on food and land-based fuels and fired back at the biofuels sector by accusing the Commission of buckling to industry pressure by taking the 'heart out of the proposal'. The Institute for European Environmental Policy was similarly scathing about what it saw as a Commission climbdown on in the face of industry pressure while welcoming the biofuel cap
Perhaps what one can say is that government interventions of this kind, however well intentioned, are always fraught with the risk of going wrong and end up displeasing everyone. One of the commentators on the industry side said that if the Commission pursued their line they might as well scrap the CAP. Be careful what you wish for.