Biofuels are flavour of the month for carmakers and politicians keen to be seen as green without directly addressing the problem of everrising transport emissions. The bio-buzz has now caught on strongly in the EU. On 10 January, the European Commission presented its new energy and biofuels blueprint. It is bad news all round.
The Commission’s paper proposes that 10 per cent of transport fuel needs (excluding aviation fuel) across the EU should be met by biofuels by 2020. These will come from a variety of crops, including rapeseed, maize, sugar beet, palm oil, sugar cane and soya.
Some of these will be grown within the EU, but there is limited capacity here – so the larger the European demand for this ‘green’ fuel, the larger the share that will have to be grown in the global South. And since the Commission has set its target as a proportion of overall transport fuel use, increases in fuel use will increase this volume still further.
With transport fuel currently the fastest growing source of carbon emissions in the EU, the demand for biofuel imports from the South will be substantial. This is particularly worrying because there is growing evidence that existing EU demand for biofuels is already spurring forest clearance and the destruction of biodiversity-rich ecosystems across the world, from south America to south east Asia.
In Cameroon, for example, the largest oil palm plantation, Socapalm, is expanding at the expense of forests traditionally used by local populations.
This expansion is at the root of land conflicts involving Bagyeli, Bulu and Fang populations whose land has been confiscated without compensation. Jobs created at the plantations – which rarely employ local people – are often temporary, without labour contracts or health and accident insurance, and the wages are extremely low: an unskilled worker earns little more than one euro (about 65 pence) for a 12-hour working day. Agrochemicals and run-off from the refinery pollute the neighbouring streams, further curtailing local people’s livelihoods.
As if this isn’t bad enough, there is evidence that some biofuels actually increase, rather than reduce, greenhouse gas emissions in the process of production and processing. A recent environmental impact study of palm oil grown in south east Asia by the conservation group Wetlands International showed that their use in Europe would generate up to 10 times more carbon dioxide than the equivalent emissions from burning fossil diesel.
The Commission report mentions such threats only in passing and instead praises biofuels as an opportunity for Southern economies. It fails to acknowledge that the gains from such an export-oriented biofuels market will benefit few in the South, while many will be faced with loss of their traditional lands to monoculture plantations and increasing prices for staple foods.
Since biofuel targets in the EU would promote the production of biomass in the South, the EU could be responsible for reducing the area of land devoted to food production, so eroding local and international food security. In the US, biofuel targets have been criticised for requiring an excessive proportion of the corn crop (20 per cent in 2006). US demand for biofuel from corn has already increased the world grain deficit, raising prices for staple foods such as tortilla in Mexico.
The European Commission proposal is also silent on another key issue: the biotech industry’s interest in promoting biofuels.
The genetically modified varieties of several crops now used as biofuel crops (including maize, soya and oilseed rape) have met strong resistance to their use as food, especially in Europe. The industry hopes that by promoting them as biofuels, these crops will gain acceptance.
Increasing transport volumes are the real issue that the EU energy strategy should be tackling. Investment in well-designed and affordable public transport schemes is essential, but the EU blueprint makes no mention of these. The paper leaves no doubt that ‘energy security’, not climate change or reducing the EU’s environmental footprint, is the primary objective of increasing biofuel use in Europe’s transport sector.
That may explain the lack of attention to measures within the transport sector that could bring about much greater climate change gains. Speed limits and a better power-to-weight ratio for new cars and trucks could result in the same savings, while adopting fuel-efficient tyres and reducing fuel consumption through smaller engines in passenger cars could achieve even greater savings. And this is before we get into fuel savings from substituting individualised transport systems with smart public transport schemes.
The Commission discards all these options as marginal and not worth pursuing. It prefers risky biofuel imports that are likely to undermine climate and environmental policies to climateproofing the EU’s transport sector. No wonder, then, that over 60 environmental and social justice organisations are already calling for a halt to the new EU biofuel targets.For more information, see www.fern.org, www.sinkswatch.org and the World Rainforest Movement Special Bulletin on Biofuels (online at: www.wrm.org.uy).
Sign an open letter against EU biofuels targets at www.biofuelwatch.org.uk. The European Commission report is online at: ec.europa.eu/energy/energy_policy/doc/07_biofuels_progress_report_en.pdf
Charlie Clarke and Heather Mendick discuss how to work through the tensions within Momentum
As man-made global warming gets closer to the tipping point, Andrew Simms finds reasons to be positive about averting catastrophic climate change
In this extract from his new book The Candidate, Alex Nunns tells the inside story of how Jeremy Corbyn scraped onto the Labour leadership ballot in 2015
Graham Jones proposes a framework for a diverse movement to flourish
Musician Eliane Correa reflects on the fading revolution
Trump's victory is another sign of the failure of the centre-left's narrative on climate change. A new message is needed, and new politicians to deliver it, writes Alex Randall
Siobhán McGuirk says the question we are too afraid to ask is simple - what kind of society leads to Donald Trump as President?
The battle lines are clear. Democracy is in peril and the left must take itself seriously electorally and politically. Ruth Potts speaks to Gary Younge, who was based in Muncie, Indiana, for the US election, about the implications of Donald Trump’s victory
We need a society built on openness, community and equality to truly defeat everything that trump stands for, writes Nick Dearden.
Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving
Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’
Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue
Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK
A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank
News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions
Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release
Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts
‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette
The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.
How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op
Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU
Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity
Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson
Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release
University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.
Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.
Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History
Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.
A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas
Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn
From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'
The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion
The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.
Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.
Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism
What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry
Airport expansion is a racist policy
Climate change is a colonial crisis, writes Jo Ram