The sting in the bio-buzz

The EU’s new targets for biofuel use will result in the destruction of forests and livelihoods in the global South without a clear environmental gain, writes Jutta Kill

March 1, 2007
5 min read

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

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