EU criteria for sustainable biofuels: accounting for carbon, depoliticising plunder

Levidow, Les (2013). EU criteria for sustainable biofuels: accounting for carbon, depoliticising plunder. Geoforum, 44(1) pp. 211–223.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2012.09.005

Abstract

The EU aspires to global leadership in developing ‘sustainable biofuels’ which can substitute for fossil fuels and thus reduce GHG emissions, while also enhancing energy security and rural development. Yet EU biofuel targets provide extra incentives for dispossessing rural communities in the global South, especially through land grabs and agro-industrial production methods. Since 2007 North–South NGO networks have denounced ‘agrofuels’ for such harm, thus provoking a high-profile controversy. Despite those criticisms, the 2009 Renewable Energy Directive (RED) set a mandatory target for European transport fuel to contain 10% renewable energy – in practical terms, meaning mainly biofuels by the 2020 deadline. In managing the consequent tensions, the EU system has elaborated a prior vision of a feasible, desirable future through sustainable biofuels. This combines several elements: mandatory targets incentivising investment in biofuels, R&D funds stimulating future novel biofuels, techniques commoditising natural resources in the name of protecting them, sustainability criteria homogenising the environment, and rural development models dependent on agro-industrial methods; those elements have become linked through circular reasoning. The EU’s political accountability is reduced to carbon accounting; in turn it is channelled into expert debates over modelling methods and uncertainties. Arguments about indirect land-use change (ILUC) became an implicit proxy for wider conflicts over the EU’s 10% target. Through the ILUC debate, biofuel critics have been drawn into expert procedures which obscure people’s experiences of harm in the global South. By these methods, the EU system can pursue global leadership for ‘sustainable biofuels’, while depoliticising its global plunder of resources.

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