The EU is emerging at the forefront of the fight against climate change. Pledging to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 and boost renewable sources, EU politicians seem keener than ever to prove their green credentials. Nina-Maria Potts reports.
Nine out of ten Europeans think climate change is a serious world problem. That startling figure comes from a recent opinion poll taken by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes.
And this widespread concern is at the heart of the European Union's new energy strategy. At a recent summit, EU governments agreed to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020. They also pledged to feed 20 percent of Europe's energy needs with renewable sources.
Biofuels alone will account for 10 percent of transport energy. Europe is rich in crops like flax and rapeseed and plenty of other crops and byproducts that can be used to make energy. Further, Europe plans to develop a biofuels industry in parts of the developing world.
However, some environmental groups argue that setting binding targets on biofuel use could do more harm than good.
Pieter de Pous is the biodiversity policy officer for the European Environmental Bureau, which represents environmental groups. He says producing biofuels can have a high cost on the environment.
"It all depends on the amount of energy you use in the production of the crop, the intensity of the processing process,” he explains. “Total greenhouse gas emissions are not just carbon, but also nitrous oxide from using mineral fertilizers. So things need to be factored in."
The EU insists it is committed to developing biofuels in a sustainable way. The European Commission plans to issue "green certificates" to biofuel producers in developing countries who export to Europe.
EU energy spokesman Ferran Taradellas Espuny says another incentive is to impose binding targets as a way to attract business to invest in biofuels and other low-carbon technologies.
"The best incentive is mandatory targets, because then you know wherever you look at it that the European Union and its member states are going to promote biofuels,” he says. “This is one [challenge], to attract investment. Another [challenge] is to do it in a sustainable way, and we are very committed to doing it in a sustainable way."
But de Pous says, at the very least, biofuel production needs to be properly assessed.
"What we need is a system which is based on a solid life-cycle analysis, where we say these kind of biofuels are the most cost effective, have the least environmental damage and therefore they will be eligible for a certain amount of public support and others do not," de Pous says.
EU officials say they are sensitive to the environmental pros and cons of biofuels - but those concerns should not, they say, outweigh the need to boost Europe's biofuels industry, especially when European public opinion is growing more concerned over global warming, and increasingly pressing governments to act.