Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
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
Dipesh Pandya speaks to documentary film-maker Sanjay Kak, who for 30 years has been working outside the mainstream to tell a story rooted in the struggles of those excluded by India’s militarism and its narrative of neoliberal growth
Jeremy Gilbert on how radical Labour politics can be inspired by the utopianism of the counterculture
Disasters have unequal impacts – it's the poor and marginalised who suffer most. David Harvey writes on Hurricane Harvey
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it
The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going
A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism
Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase
Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields
Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton
Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi
A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain
Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank
Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded
West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson
Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens
Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age
Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today
The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics
Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook