The European Union signalled on Thursday it was ready to ramp up imports of biofuels from countries such as Brazil but warned producers it expected strict environmental standards to be met.
BRUSSELS -- The European Union signalled on Thursday it was ready to ramp up imports of biofuels from countries such as Brazil but warned producers it expected strict environmental standards to be met.
The 27-nation EU set itself a target in March for biofuels to make up at least 10 percent of vehicle fuels by 2020 as part of efforts to reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change.
But critics say growing crops for fuel may contribute to destruction of rainforests and raise food prices.
Some European farmers hope Brussels will favour locally produced biofuels as a new money-spinner for them.
But several top officials at a biofuels conference stressed the EU had to be open to imports if they meet EU standards.
"Europe should be open to accepting that we will import a large part of our biofuel resources," Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said. "We cannot contemplate, in my view, favouring EU production of biofuels with a weak carbon performance if we can import cheaper, cleaner biofuels."
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said the EU would push for sustainable biofuels output and consumption.
"This means setting up a rigorous sustainability mechanism to underpin a new market for these products," he said.
Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said his country is now working on a certification plan for its huge biofuels industry based on environmental and labour standards and he urged rich countries not to use them as new barriers.
"We cannot send out contradictory signals. The same governments concerned about sustainable development and cutting greenhouse gases cannot put up problems for biofuels becoming international commodities," he told the same conference.
Brazilian biofuel faces EU import tariffs of about 70 percent, trade officials say.
Mandelson and EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs indicated a willingness to cut tariffs if imports are truly green. "For me, there is no need for protective tariffs as long as the biofuels are sustainable," Piebalgs told Reuters.
Such comments are likely to raise eyebrows in EU countries with strong farm interests, chief among them France. Its new President Nicolas Sarkozy has repeatedly criticised Brussels for being too focused on open markets.
EU farmers group COPA-COGECA said biofuels from countries such as Brazil came at the cost of rainforest destruction and exploitation of workers, claims denied by Brazil.
"Mandelson must get his facts right on biofuels. You can only call for biofuel imports from low-cost producers on environmental grounds if you completely close your eyes to the economic realities in these countries," the group said.
EU biofuels producers also say imports of bio-diesel from the United States and Argentina are unfairly subsidised.
Sweden, in the EU's free-market camp, wants no biofuel import tariffs at all. "It simply does not seem consistent to me to make import of ethanol more expensive at a time when we are trying to expand the use," Trade Minister Sten Tolgfors said.
An EU sustainability mechanism is expected to be a part of new biofuels legislation Brussels will propose later this year.
The rules are likely to stipulate that only sources that meet sustainability standards, such as more efficient second-generation biofuels, will be eligible for tax exemptions and will count towards the EU's 10 percent target.