Biofuels sound like the perfect way to save the environment and cut spiraling carbon emissions. They are made from plants and leave no nasty waste products. They produce less emissions than fossil fuels and, supporters argue, their emissions are offset by the carbon absorbed by the plants as they are growing.
But biofuels are creating huge environmental and social damage, especially for poor farmers in the Global South, as a new report by the charity Grain points out.
Biofuels are fuels made from starch or sugar based crops. Examples include ethanol produced from sugar, corn or wheat and biodiesel, which is produced from vegetable oils such as palm or rapeseed.
Biofuels are also big business. A recent United Nations (UN) report found that global biofuel production has doubled in the past five years and is set to double again in just four years.
A string of new enterprises have sprung up alongside established fuel companies making moves into the biofuel market. For instance, BP has just announced plans to open a new £200 million biofuels processing plant near Hull in alliance with Associated British Foods.
Biofuels are attracting support from unlikely environmental activists. Last weekend the fast food chain McDonald’s announced that it was converting its fleet of 155 lorries in Britian to run on biodiesel.
In January George Bush pledged that the US would cut its petrol use by 20 percent over the next decade – three quarters of this reduction, he said, would come from switching to biofuels.
It is easy to see why Bush likes biofuels. Companies and politicians are under increasing pressure to be seen to act over the environment. Biofuels offer a convenient way to seem green without having to address issues such as car use or challenge corporate interests.
Biofuels are also seen as a way out of US dependency on oil imports from Latin America and the Middle East.
Jeb Bush – the US president’s brother – is president of the Inter-America Ethanol Commission, a body formed last year to promote biofuels. He claims that biofuels can help create jobs, increase prosperity and reduce fuel dependency on “unstable sources controlled by enemies of our country”.
To this end, George Bush met with Brazil’s president Lula earlier this year to discuss cooperation on biofuels. Brazil is the leading producer of ethanol from sugar – and US strategists see it as a counterweight in Latin America to the influence and oil of Venezuela’s radical president Hugo Chavez.
Johan Hoffman is chief executive of Ethanol Africa, a South African firm planning eight major biofuel processing plants across the continent. He says bioethanol will “create jobs and uplift the poor”. But, in fact, biofuels are doing the opposite.
A report released in May by the NGO Regional Hunger and Vulnerability Programme highlighted how the price of staple foods was rising because of biofuel cultivation. Maize prices rose 28 percent and sugar 13 percent in South Africa in 2005-6.
The report argues that the increasing use of biofuels is leading to “a highly unequal contest between the poor having to compete for the basics on which they live, and the rich who want it burn it to run in their cars”.
As environmental activist George Monbiot points out, “Since the beginning of 2006, the price of maize has doubled. The price of wheat has also reached a ten-year high, while global stockpiles of both grains have reached 25-year lows.”
One of the main problems with biofuels is the huge amount of land needed to cultivate them. This means either taking over land previously used for food – which causes shortages and pushes up food prices – or expanding the cultivation of land through forest clearances and drainage.
The Grain report points to proposals to give over million hectares of land in Africa and Brazil to biofuels. The consequence, they argue is “expropriation on an unprecedented scale”.
Biofuels are far from the green miracle they are made out to be. In fact their impact on the environment can be counter-productive at best, and devastating at worst.
Growing and processing crops for biofuels uses a lot of energy in itself. They are cultivated with fertilisers and pesticides, pollutants and other sources of carbon emissions.
There is a serious environmental impact from transport, since biofuels tend to be produced in the Global South for a Western market. Countries such as Britain will rely on imports to expand its biofuel use.
Even if all arable land in Britain was given over to cultivating biofuels, this would still produce less than a quarter of the biodiesel needed for current British transport needs.
The environmental impact of biofuels in the Global South has been catastrophic. In Brazil, the drive for biofuels is a continuing threat to the rainforests.
In Indonesia and Malaysia – which produce 84 percent of the palm oil used in biodiesel – the UN predicts that at current rates 98 percent of the rainforest will be destroyed by 2022.
In Indonesia much of the land being cleared for cultivating palm oil is peat wetlands. This is dried out, releasing more carbon as the peat oxidises. Peat and wood are often burned to speed up the clearances, driving up the levels of carbon emissions still further.
Earlier this month Gordon Brown joined Richard Branson on board Britain’s first “biodiesel train” – which runs on only 20 percent biofuel mixed with fossil fuels.
In this year’s budget, Brown announced that he would extend tax rebates for biofuels until 2010. By 2050, the government hopes that a third of our fuel will come from crops.
These measures do nothing to address the real problems behind climate change – the lack of decent public transport, or the lack of investment in renewable energies without such human and environmental costs.
They are instead promoting a method that in the hands of the market is wreaking immense human and environmental destruction.
For more on the campaign against biofuels go to » www.grain.org