I am bemused when Ireland’s EU commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn is hailed as a “progressive”. Twenty years have passed since – as a justice minister – she oversaw the decriminalisation of homosexuality in her country. Though she deserves some kudos for standing up to the Catholic hierarchy, she has behaved in an obsequious manner towards more powerful men in her current role as the Union’s science chief. I am referring here to the titans of the energy industry.
The World Food Programme, the World Bank and numerous anti-poverty groups have all documented how using agricultural crops for transport causes the price of basic groceries to rise, thereby exacerbating hunger. Yet Geoghegan-Quinn has decided to disregard these warnings and to continue promoting biofuels.
In July, Geoghegan-Quinn announced that 1 billion euros in EU funds was being allocated to a new initiative for supporting “bio-based industries”. Among the stated objectives of this seven-year project are to replace oil refineries with “biorefineries” and to hasten the production of alternatives to conventional petrol and diesel.
Because the bumph prepared for the initiative is peppered with “green” buzzwords like “sustainable” and “locally-sourced”, it is important to look at who its main beneficiaries will be. Far from being a bunch of organic farmers or tree-huggers, the corporate consortium behind the project brings together agri-food giants like Unilever and Cargill with the Dutch airline KLM and the Spanish oil and gas firm Repsol.
This means that the future of Europe’s energy is being shaped by unaccountable corporations whose primary motivation is maximising profits, not meeting the needs of society.
Geoghegan-Quinn is more gung-ho in supporting biofuels than many of her colleagues in the European Commission.
In October 2012, the EU’s executive belatedly conceded that a goal established in 2007 that biofuels should power 10% of all cars and truck journeys by 2020 was harming the hungry. Revising the target, it stipulated that the proportion of road trips undertaken with food crops should not exceed 5%.
Despite that admission, Geoghegan-Quinn used a conference in Dublin on Valentine’s Day this year to declare her undying love for biofuels. Branding the “food versus fuel” debate as “too simplistic”, she argued that “with a fully functioning bioeconomy” the need for both nutrition and energy can be satisfied.
Her reassurances jar with a recent study by ActionAid, which found that the biofuel industry is gobbling up Africa’s resources. According to the charity, less than 100 European companies took over 6 million hectares of land in sub-Saharan Africa between 2009 and 2013. The EU’s biofuels craze could push up the price of foods by 36% by 2020, ActionAid has estimated.
Certain of a generous pension when she finishes her current job, Geoghegan-Quinn will not endure much anguish over higher supermarket bills. Millions affected by her policies won’t have the same luxury.
Why is she being so callous? The most plausible explanation is that she has allowed her attitude to biofuels be determined by the army of corporate lobbyists who regularly badger her entourage. It has been reported that these lobbyists bombarded her office with three emails every hour ahead of a key decision in October 2012.
Despite the damage caused by the EU’s targets for biofuels, these lobbyists are pushing for fresh targets to be set, according to documents that I have seen. An alliance of large food and energy firms called ePure has been urging Geoghegan-Quinn to provide incentives for biofuel use beyond 2020. The Carlyle Group – a private equity firm with a history of business connections to both the Bush and Bin Laden families – has struck an alarmist tone in its dealings with the Commission. Last year, it predicted that a weakening of the EU’s biofuels goals would “leave the industry fighting for its survival”.
Geoghegan-Quinn has proven receptive to these arguments. A key recommendation of the “bio-based industries” initiative is that 25% of all transport be undertaken with biofuels by 2030.
Even before she agreed to fund this initiative, Geoghegan-Quinn oversaw a variety of schemes designed to boost the use of biofuels in aviation. Participants in an EU-financed research project called ALFA-BIRD (alternative fuels and biofuels for aircraft development) included Shell and the weapons manufacturers Dassault and Rolls-Royce.
The official rationale for such projects is to make transport more environmentally friendly. Asking a notorious polluter like Shell or firms whose bottom line depends on military aggression for help on protecting the environment is like asking Starbucks for advice on ending tax avoidance.
Of course, research is required into the future of transport. Data published by the European Environment Agency indicates that transport accounts for almost one-quarter of all the EU’s greenhouse gas emissions. Given the massive contribution of road and air travel to climate change, it is surely imperative that policy-makers focus on ways of reducing car and plane journeys.
If Geoghegan-Quinn was a genuine progressive, she would encourage research on such topics as how more cities can follow the fine examples set by Copenhagen and Amsterdam, where cycling is a popular way of getting around. She would prioritise public transport over congestion and seek to curb the growth of airports.
Championing biofuels is a convenient way of dodging necessary action. It allows powerful corporations to spout gibberish about “sustainability”, as they carry on causing hunger.
David Cronin is the author of the new book Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War published by Pluto Press.