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Fuelling the debate

On a cold, wet, miserable evening a couple of weeks ago, I braved London’s evening rush hour madness to attend a Big Biofuel Debate, hosted by Action Aid as part of their campaign launch.

Now I, like many others, had for a long time assumed that biofuels must be A Good Thing. After all, we know full well how damaging fossil fuels are; surely any attempt to replace our dependency on them with less harmful alternatives is to be welcomed? The very name ‘biofuels’ exudes wholesomeness and benignity. Mind you, I thought the same about biological washing powder until it gave me a rash.

So here’s a sobering thought: The amount of corn required to fill a 4x4 tank with biofuel would feed a child for a year.

Oilseed and pylon by Lee Jordan http://www.flickr.com/photos/leejordan/

Screaming out from a massive poster in the auditorium, this message woke me out of my travel-induced stupor. For the next couple of hours I was bombarded with shocking facts and chilling truths; I heard men in suits (from British Sugar and the Government-funded Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership) defend biofuel production and I witnessed a passionate plea from Amancay Colque of the Bolivia Solidarity Campaign to open our eyes to the damage biofuels are causing in her homeland. 

‘Bolivia is a big place but has a tiny economy. Thanks to World Bank/International Monetary Fund strictures, 60 per cent of the population is living below the poverty line,’ she explained. She rubbished suggestions from other panellists that farmers are benefiting from biofuel production, because, she argued, both the biofuels and the profits leave the country. ‘Our land is being destroyed to make a profit… but for whom? Eighty-seven per cent of the cooking oil produced in Bolivia is being exported, while the local population goes without.’

Big agribusiness has swept into many poor countries, buying up land for biofuel production. They argue that the land is ‘marginal’ or ‘unproductive’, but these areas are often used by the local community for firewood or the collection of traditional herbal medicines. The social and environmental cost is enormous – biodiversity (a good 'bio' word!) is destroyed, people are chased off their land and, with more crops being diverted from food to fuel, the cost of food increases as demand begins to outstrip supply.

The recent biofuel boom has already had a huge impact on food prices. Action Aid says it was responsible for at least 30 per cent of the food price rises in 2008, which drove an extra 100 million people into poverty, and that a further 600 million could go hungry by 2020 if global biofuel use increases as predicted.

As if all this wasn’t bad enough, many types of biofuel production cause more greenhouse emissions than fossil fuels. Most biofuel crops require a lot of fertilizer – which releases nitrous oxide, a gas 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. And clearing forests and peat lands to make way for the crops releases huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. 

By the end of the debate, I felt like a sponge that had been wrung out to dry. There is only so much doom and gloom a girl can take at the end of a long day. But thankfully, there is hope. Biofuels could be that elusive Good Thing – but only if they are sustainably produced on a small scale, to serve the local market. And as such, they will never replace fossil fuels. The only way to tackle greenhouse gas emissions is to reduce our consumption of fuel – be that of the fossil or biofuel variety.

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