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Biofuels: cure or a new threat?

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Though they are presented as an ecologically acceptable form of power generation, there are real dangers with biofuels, writes Almuth Ernsting
Issue 1998
illustration by Tim Sanders
illustration by Tim Sanders

With oil prices above $70 a barrel, could biofuels help to solve our energy crisis and reduce climate change at the same time? From George Bush to the European Union (EU), governments around the world seem to think so – and are beginning to subsidise the new biofuel revolution.

As millions of acres worldwide are converted to corn, oilseed rape, palm oil, soybean and jatropha, news is coming in that we could be making climate change worse, driving more species into extinction and threatening food supplies in poor countries.

The most competitive of all biofuel crops are palm oil – grown mainly in South East Asia – and sugar cane from Brazil.

They are competitive not just because of low wages and poor workers’ rights, but also because they provide more energy per acre than other biofuel crops.

Yet palm oil plantations, together with illegal logging in Borneo, may already be responsible for as many carbon dioxide emissions as those of the US, at least in a few years.

This astonishing figure was calculated by a group of scientists that found the amount of carbon released by peat fires on Borneo in 1997-8 was the equivalent of up to 40 percent of all global emissions from burning fossil fuel.

In the mid-1990s, Indonesian dictator Suharto ordered the draining of millions of acres of peat swamp forests for his Mega Rice Project.

Protests from environmentalists and the local Dayak population were brutally suppressed.

No rice could ever grow on the acid soils.

Instead, palm oil plantations spread over vast tracts of what had been ancient rainforests. In 1997-8, the worst drought on record struck the region. The drained peat went up in smoke as palm oil plantation owners set fires to clear more of the forest.

Similar fires have burnt every year since.

Many scientists believe that those peat fires are partly responsible for the increased rise in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over the past few years, which will mean even faster global warming in future.

Over the next few decades, all of the billions of tons of carbon contained in Borneo’s peat are expected to go up in smoke, putting “climate stabilisation” further out of reach.

Yet it would be perfectly possible to reflood the peat swamps and keep the carbon safely locked up. Such an international effort might have the same effect as four Kyoto agreements – but there is little money and even less political will.

Instead, Indonesia and Malaysia are keen to drain more peat swamps and log much of their remaining forests in order to expand palm oil plantations.

This, then, is likely to become the main source of our future biodiesel.

A similar disaster is looming in the Amazon, with president Lula announcing plans for Brazil to become a major exporter of soy biodiesel. The Amazon contains even more carbon than Indonesia’s forests, and its loss would lead to global warming truly spiralling out of control.

So how can the EU claim that tropical biofuel crops will reduce our emissions? Easy—peat burning emissions are counted as those of Indonesia, Malaysia and Brazil, while Europe has to burn less diesel or petrol.

There are some positive examples of biofuels.

Millions of tons of organic waste, from agriculture, forestry and households are wasted every year when they could yield valuable energy.

Poor countries like Malawi could benefit from using their biofuels more efficiently – without having to destroy their own forests while women and girls walk miles every day to gather firewood.

This year the EU biofuel directive will be reviewed and finalised. Right now it sets extremely high targets which will be mainly met by imports, with no control over where or how biofuels are produced. The stakes are high.

What we need is a mandatory certification scheme. It should be based on an objective scientific assessment, which looks at impacts on local communities, climate, food supplies, soils, water and wildlife.

No target should be set until it is known whether it can be met without harming the planet and poor people.

All of us must act now to stop the disaster of an unregulated, free market biofuel revolution.

Almuth Ernsting is a member of Campaign Against Climate Change, but this is her personal view. There is a full discussion of this issue on Go to the activists’ portal and read the posts in the biofuel section.

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