New Internationalist

Where now for biofuels?

Issue 444

Can fuel crops ever be sustainable? Danny Chivers tries to spot a glimmer of green gold within the burgeoning bio-nightmare.

Paulo Whitaker / Reuters
Santa Elisa sugar cane farm in Sertaozinho, northeast of São Paulo. Brazil is the world’s largest producer and exporter of sugar and ethanol. Paulo Whitaker / Reuters

It seems like quite a nice idea, if you don’t think about it too hard. Why not grow some fresh new energy rather than relying on finite fossil fuels that are cooking the climate? Why not swap some of those dirty coal mines and oil wells for fields of fuel crops, powered by the sun, delivering clean, renewable energy year after year?

Sadly, as soon as you do start thinking about it, you realize that things aren’t so simple. We’d need to turn around 600 million hectares of cropland – accounting for almost half of current global food production – over to biofuels just to power the world’s vehicle fleet.1 Despite this, over the past 20 years, the dream of a plant-powered world has grown from a green-tinted vision to a globe-spanning industry. Millions of hectares of African land have been set aside for energy crops like jatropha and oil palm.2 Forty per cent of the US corn crop now feeds cars rather than people. More than a third of the fuel in Brazilian cars started life as sugar cane. Neste Oil have just completed the world’s largest biofuel refinery in Singapore, with a processing capacity of 800,000 tonnes per year.3 A whole host of problems have followed the push to exploit biofuels, from land grabs and deforestation to food price rises and increased carbon emissions.

But are these problems inevitable? Could energy crops have a useful role to play in helping to wean us off fossil fuels, if we could just manage them properly, or grow them in the right places and in the right way?

In their recent report Zero Carbon Britain 2030, the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales suggest that a limited amount of domestically grown biofuels made from wood and grasses could be useful for powering the sectors of society for which no alternatives to liquid fuels are currently available: aviation, shipping, some heavy goods vehicles and some farm machinery. They note that this would only work if overall energy use in all these sectors fell dramatically through a shift to more sustainable forms of transport; if the crops were organically grown and carefully managed; and if the necessary land was freed up by a shift from livestock farming to vegetables and grains.4

This cautious vision of a carefully controlled bundle of biofuels is a far cry from the profit-driven rush for biogold that’s happening in the real world.

Jatropha vs food in Senegal

Fatou Mbaye, Food Rights Co-ordinator for Action Aid Senegal

‘Biofuels plantations really got started in Senegal in 2008. They have grown and grown, thanks to demands from foreign investors for more arable land for these crops.

‘Jatropha is promoted as a high-yield crop that will produce biodiesel. At first, we were told that it would be grown on marginal land. But it’s being grown on the best arable land with the highest rainfall, or where good irrigation is possible, to make it economically profitable. This might mean cutting down forest land where families used to get their firewood, food, fruit – in some areas in the South, the forest can provide 68 per cent of family income. Or it might be land which used to be cultivated by the community, or used for livestock.

‘People were told that they could get a good income on the jatropha plantations, but the work is only there from June to August. After this period, the farmers don’t have any money to buy food for their families, and they haven’t been able to cultivate their own crops. So jatropha has a negative effect on our food security. The EU’s sustainability criteria do not take into account these social impacts, and they didn’t set up any mechanisms for controlling the companies on the ground.’

Driving forces

Making fuel from crops is nothing new – the original Model T Ford was built to run on ethanol. However, the recent biofuel boom has its roots in the 1990s, when growing public awareness of climate change and oil scarcity spurred interest in alternative fuels.

Because plants suck carbon out of the air as they grow and then release it when they burn, it was first assumed that the greenhouse gas emissions from a fuel crop would pretty much balance themselves out. However, this doesn’t take account of all the chemical and energy inputs to the crop, the effects of deforestation and lost soil carbon. Once these things are included, the carbon savings from biofuels are small at best, and in many cases they are worse for the climate than fossil fuels.5 As these figures were revealed by new research, along with the effect of biofuels on livelihoods and food supplies, environmentalists who had previously cautiously welcomed these fuels quickly withdrew support – but by this time, big energy and agricultural companies had spotted the potential of biofuels as a profitable new income stream.

Jim Thomas from the technology watchdog ETC Group explains: ‘If you look at BP and Shell, they’ve dropped their support for other so-called renewables and are focusing on biofuels. Exxon only ever went for biofuels. It’s because it’s something they’re already used to dealing with – a liquid fuel they can put in cars – and they have the existing infrastructure to handle and refine it.’ He places liquid biofuels in the same category as oil from tar sands or deepwater drilling – an opportunity for the energy companies to keep squeezing out more profits as sources of conventional crude dry up.

At the same time, powerful agricultural interests – from US corn growers to Brazilian sugar cane magnates – saw the opportunity for a whole new fuel-based market for their products. The seeds of the biofuel boom had been sown.

Tarnished targets

AP / Press Association Images
Civil servants mingle with Shan women in traditional dress to plant jatropha at a ceremony in Burma. The colourful scene belies the truth: the Burmese regime often forces farmers to raise this crop when they would rather be growing food for their families. AP / Press Association Images

Pressure from the industrial lobby plus other local factors (such as calls for energy security and ‘rural development’ in the US, and greenhouse gas reduction targets in the EU) spurred governments around the world into launching pro-biofuel policies. Forty-nine countries (including the 27 members of the EU) now have a mandated ‘blending’ target – a pledge to mix a certain percentage of biofuel into their transport fuel supply, typically between 5 and 20 per cent.6 Some, like the US and Brazil, have progressed a long way towards these targets; others, like Australia, are still in the early stages.

By guaranteeing ever-increasing demand for biofuels, these policies have flung open the farm gates to large-scale energy crop development. Meanwhile, more and more evidence is piling up about the negative impacts of these crops. For example, switching a piece of food-growing farmland over to biofuels means that someone elsewhere will need to grow some extra food to compensate – and they may well be felling a forest or carving up peatland to do it, leading to sizeable ‘indirect’ carbon emissions.7

Meanwhile, the use of biofuels is thought to have played a significant role in the current disastrous spike in global food prices.8 The US drive for corn ethanol – supported by the government through a 10 per cent blending mandate, a subsidy and an import tariff – is seen as a major culprit. According to Marie Brill, Senior Policy Analyst at ActionAid USA, ‘It’s definitely not the only factor, but it plays a big role. We’re currently producing over 13 billion gallons of corn ethanol per year. Combined with recent weather shocks, this has left our stocks of corn at a dangerously low level, and pushed prices up to record highs. As the world’s biggest corn exporter, US corn prices have a direct impact on global prices.’

Brill also points out that the US itself is not insulated from these price shocks – by chasing the will-o-the-wisp of energy security (which corn ethanol could never come close to achieving), the country could – ironically – be putting its own food security at risk.

The EU’s target of making 10 per cent of its vehicle transport ‘renewable’ by 2020 was supposed to drive the development of all kinds of new sustainable technology. Instead, it’s become a de facto biofuels target, as industries have seen this as the easiest route to follow. The EU is now rolling out a set of accompanying ‘sustainability standards’ to try to limit the negative impacts of the biofuels it imports; however, these standards do not cover social issues, water scarcity, agrochemical use, impacts on food prices or indirect land use change, and seem impossible to enforce on the ground. The same problems seem to hold for similar ‘sustainable’ biofuel standards around the world.

Biofuels aren’t just powering cars. Half of renewable electricity generation in the US comes from wood and other organic material, and a major expansion of tree-burning power stations is being planned. Similar schemes are afoot in Britain, including a proposal for the world’s biggest wood-fuelled power station at Tilbury. This is likely to have knock-on effects on forests, people’s health, soil quality, and the climate – even if a new tree is planted for every tree that’s burned, it can take decades for the new tree to absorb as much carbon as was lost from the old one. There are no firm standards to prevent wood fuel being imported from ex-rainforest plantations in South America or Africa.9

Eating into forests in Indonesia

Joko Arif, Forest Campaigner, Greenpeace Southeast Asia

‘We’ve been campaigning for four years now, against the expansion of palm oil plantations into peatlands and rainforests. Although biofuel is still only a relatively small part of the palm oil market today, we can see that it’s coming – we’ve seen a major increase in infrastructure like refineries.

‘Palm oil companies have been increasing their concessions in order to produce biofuels. In order to qualify for the European market, the biofuel must come from an old-growth palm oil plantation [ie not newly cleared rainforest land]. However, what the companies do is switch an existing plantation from cooking oil to biofuel, and then expand to make a new cooking oil plantation on another agricultural area, or even forest or peatland, or land that belongs to indigenous people.’

The generation game

So far, all of the liquid biofuels produced on a large scale have been so-called ‘first generation’ ethanol and biodiesel crops – mainly corn, sugar cane, soya, rapeseed, sugar beet and cereals. Following heavy criticism, the industries are keen to develop ‘next generation’ crops. In Australia, for example, growing concerns about the use of fresh water and arable land for biofuel production rather than food10 have led to calls to produce biofuels from wood and waste instead, particularly for aviation.11 Corporate pairings from an environmentalist’s nightmare – Exxon and Synthetic Genomics, Shell and Amyris Biotechnologies, Total and Cargill – have come together to compete in a race to develop more efficient ways to process farm waste, grasses and algae into fuel. While they may not compete directly with food crops in the same way as first generation fuels, these ‘next gen’ energy sources all face similar problems and limits (see pages 30-31). None are yet in full-scale development, and aren’t expected to be until at least 2020.12

Some of these technologies may indeed turn out to be useful – but only on a relatively small scale. Solid and liquid fuels from trees, grasses and some agricultural wastes could have a specialized role in local energy use. Methane from food waste and recycled cooking oil both have a limited but helpful role to play. Jatropha is traditionally grown on parts of some African farms as a wind break, and to provide a small amount of oil for lanterns, soaps and medicinal purposes. Brazilian farmers from the Movement of Small Peasants (MPA), have set up a co-operative (Cooperativa Mista de Produção, Industrialização e Comercialização de Biocombustíveis) to challenge the Brazilian monoculture model: they each grow a small amount of sugar cane along with their other crops and then share the use of a communal micro-mill. This produces ethanol to power their farm machinery, as well as cachaça spirit and other sugar products for sale.13

David Cheskin / PA Archive/Press Association Images
Climate protestor takes her message to the Edinburgh office of Greenergy, Britain’s largest biofuel supplier. David Cheskin / PA Archive/Press Association Images

However, there is a limited amount of productive land in the world, and it usually makes more sense to use it to feed people rather than cars or power stations. In many cases, we need to use that land (or ocean) only lightly or not at all, in order to maintain the species and ecosystems that share the planet with us. There are usually better ways to get (or save) energy than growing it – as Fatou Mbaye points out, in Africa it is far more efficient to harness solar power directly for cooking or electricity generation than to use it to grow jatropha. Marie Brill notes that the US grand plan to replace 10 per cent of the country’s vehicle fuel with corn ethanol would save the same amount of imported oil as properly pumping up the nation’s tyres.

Rather than putting in place all the tricky infrastructure and policies that we need for a high-quality zero-carbon future – good public transport powered by wind and solar energy, low-input regional food networks, energy-efficient homes, land reform and trade justice in the South, economies not based on consumerism and endless growth in the North – governments and business are pretending that we can carry on as usual by pouring the planet’s bioproductivity into our petrol tanks and power stations. While some carefully managed fuel crops could have a useful role to play, a profit-driven attempt to ramp up biofuels to a level where they replace a large chunk of our fossil fuels is a one-way road to failure, with plenty of casualties along the way.

Bursting the biobubble

It doesn’t have to be this way. Resistance to the biofuel boom is spreading. Campaigning by Kenyan civil society has so far prevented biofuel development in the Dakatcha area. Local groups are springing up to oppose wood- and palm-oil-burning power stations in Northern nations.14 The EU is under increasing pressure to remove biofuels from its renewables target. A highly unusual alliance is coming together in the US to challenge corn ethanol subsidies, with such strange bedfellows as Move On, FreedomWorks, Americans for Limited Government, ActionAid, the National Chicken Council and Oxfam all heading into battle together.

The next batch of biofuels isn’t yet out of the blocks, and we have an opportunity to redefine the debate before they get here. The Rio +20 Sustainable Development Summit in Brazil in 2012 will be a crucial moment – biofuels are currently a large part of the agenda. We still have time to debunk the myth of ‘sustainable’ large-scale fuel crops, and shift the Rio agenda towards genuine energy solutions. We can all live good lives within planetary limits – but we need to remember that one of those limits is productive land. As Mark Twain famously said: they’re not making it any more.

Wildlife defence in Kenya

Serah Munguti, Communication & Advocacy Manager, Nature Kenya

‘The Dakatcha Woodland is a vital area for rare birds, animals and for people in Kenya, but it is under threat from a proposed biofuel plantation.

‘It is not possible to meet the EU’s 10 per cent renewable fuel target with sustainable biofuels. We are already seeing increased demand for vast tracts of land – and that land would not be otherwise lying idle. People are using it to produce food, or it’s needed as a protected area for wildlife.

‘The EU Commissioner for Energy is now saying that under the new sustainability rules, biofuels grown in Dakatcha would not be eligible for the EU target. But this may well come too late, because the damage will have already been done. If the biofuel plantations go ahead, the EU can say afterwards, ‘That project should not have been done, it’s not eligible towards the target’ – but so what? It will be too late. And the biofuels can still be sold in the EU, even if they don’t count towards the renewable vehicle fuel target – they still count as zero carbon in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme.*

‘The whole thing is fraught with loopholes, and those loopholes are going to cause a lot of damage on the ground. Let’s be clear: if we didn’t have a strong campaigning civil society in Kenya, this development would have happened by now and this forest would be gone forever.’

*A separate EU policy, see carbontradewatch.org/issues/cap-and-trade.html

Danny would like to thank: Joko Arif, Greenpeace Southeast Asia; Marie Brill, ActionAid USA; Josie Cohen, ActionAid UK; Belinda Fletcher, Greenpeace; Fatou Mbaye, ActionAid Senegal; Serah Munguti, Nature Kenya; Winnie Overbeek, World Rainforest Movement; Robert Palgrave, Biofuelwatch UK; Tim Rice, ActionAid UK; Rachel Smolker, Biofuelwatch USA; Jim Thomas, ETC Group.

  1. Calculated from figures from ‘Global developments in the competition for land from biofuels’ Richard Murphy et al, Food Policy. nin.tl/kBihZ7
  2. The Economist, nin.tl/jH71Po
  3. Neste Oil, nin.tl/jKbnNw
  4. zerocarbonbritain.com
  5. biofuelwatch.org.uk/docs/lca_assessments.pdf
  6. World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 5364. Biofuels: Markets, Targets and Impacts, July 2010.
  7. nin.tl/kIz2kI
  8. actionaid.org.uk/doclib/mealsper_gallon _final.pdf
  9. Information on wood-fuelled power stations from Rachel Smolker, Robert Palgrave, and Winnie Overbeek.
  10. nin.tl/jECKKq
  11. ABC, nin.tl/m5qr0a
  12. According to industry sources quoted by Josie Cohen, Action Aid UK.
  13. Winnie Overbeek, World Rainforest Movement.
  14. See for example nin.tl/jkVP1g

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