01 November 2007

Biofuels, the misleading solution

With the approach of the oil peak, an increasing demand for energy and fuel and pressures to tackle climate change, biofuels were seen as the ultimate solution for the future.

In fact, in 2005 the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) presented a paper on a meeting of its Committee of Agriculture, where it advocated biofuels to help the diversification of agricultural and forestry activities and improve food security, while contributing to sustainable development. Also, biofuels are often claimed to be a renewable energy source which is carbon-neutral, because (when they are burnt) they release only the CO2 that was already in the atmosphere.

These arguments seem convincing enough for the rapid development of this technology, which also benefits from political (and economic) support of high-developed countries which are struggling to comply with quotas on carbon emissions as defined in the Kyoto protocol. As a result of this, in recent years there has been a massive increase on the production and use of this "green" energy source.

As such, in 2003 the European Union approved a directive on biofuels, where it stipulates that national measures must be taken by countries across the EU aiming at replacing 5,75% of all transport fossil fuels (petrol and diesel) with biofuels by 2010.

But the criticisms are many, and biofuels might actually be bringing more damage than benefit for both the environment and the people...

As it seems, these fuels are not carbon-neutral after all, as there are considerable CO2 emissions from the refinery and distillery process needed to produce biodiesel or bioethanol, from its transport, farm machinery use and fertiliser production, etc. Also, these fuels have been shown to generate bigger amounts of nitrous oxide (N2O), which are potent and long lasting greenhouse gases.

Also, biofuels is leading to a greater increase on agricultural intensification - already a major cause for biodiversity loss in the Global North - and deforestation of considerable areas of tropical forests (particularly in the Global South), with an unaccountable impact on its carbon sink function and the biodiversity that depends on it.

In response to the British government's Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO), which brings the UK into line with the European biofuels directive, some of Britain's biggest green groups (including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, RSPB and WWF) are warning that "the government risks implementing an ill-thought out policy which lacks the appropriate safeguards, meaning that the government could be creating more problems than it solves".

Specifically, they criticise the lack of any regulations concerning these. This way, and in order to support the RTFO, they demand:
  • Ensure that biofuels meet strict externally audited, widely accepted and mandatory sustainability and greenhouse gas balance standards, including at least a 50 per cent saving on greenhouse gases compared to fossil fuels, taking a whole life-cycle approach
  • Take account of the greenhouse gases caused by land-use change and forest clearance to grow biofuels so that where high carbon land-uses are lost, no saving is claimed.

Also, in August 2007 Jean Ziegler, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food presented a report to the General Assembly on "The impact of biofuels on the right to food, protection gap for people fleeing from hunger". In this report he alerts:
  • There are serious risks of creating a battle between food and fuel that will leave the poor and hungry in developing countries at the mercy of rapidly rising prices for food, land and water.
  • If agro-industrial methods are pursued to turn food into fuel, then there are risks that unemployment and violations of the right to food may result, unless specific measures are put in place to ensure that biofuels contribute to the development of small-scale peasant and family farming.
The report ends with a series of conclusions and recommendations for governments on the realization of the right to food, which include:
  • States should establish a five-year moratorium on all initiatives to develop biofuels through converting food into fuel. This should provide time for an assessment of the potential impact on the right to food, as well as on other social, environmental and human rights, and should ensure that biofuels do not produce hunger.
  • States should ensure that biofuels are produced from non-food plants, agricultural wastes and crop residues, rather than food crops, in order to avert massive rises in the prices of food, water and land and the diversion of these resources away from food production. This will require immediate massive investment in “second generation” technologies for producing biofuels.
  • States should adopt appropriate measures to ensure that biofuel production is based on family agriculture, rather than agro-industrial methods, in order to avert creating hunger and instead create employment and rural development that does not bypass the poor.
  • The right to food is a human right. Leaving people to suffer from hunger, famine and starvation is a violation of human rights.
Finally, when presenting this report to the public and the media, in New York, the Rapporteur also stated that "It is a crime against humanity to convert agricultural productive soil into soil which produces food stuff that will be burned into biofuel."

So, there seems to be a lot of misleading "truths" about biofuels, some of them undoubtedly nourished by big economic lobbies which are already making much profit of this "green" technology...

Bioenergy, key to the fight against hunger, FAO Newsroom
Biofuels, Greenpeace
Biofuels - a big green con?, Friends of the Earth
Biofuels: Renewable energy or environmentl disaster in the making?, BiofuelWatch
Biofuels could add to greenhouse gas emissions
UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food


Jamie said...

Great post. I work at Greenpeace and just this week we published new research about the impact of palm oil on Indonesia's forests and peatlands. The focus was on its use in food (which still accounts for well over 70 per cent of all palm oil), but the biofuel sector is ballooning. This one's going to run and run.

bwb said...

Hi Jamie. Thanks for you comment and for the link to your post on the Greenpeace blog!
All the best.