The big Friends of the Earth campaign over the summer and into September is lobbying MEPs to oppose the EU's new legislation to impose a 10% target for use of biofuels (or agrofuels) in road transport. Agrofuels are produced by using biomass (material from plants or trees) to make liquid fuel (biodiesel or bioethanol). Using the prefix “bio” normally makes people think that something has environmental benefits, but in this case nothing could be further from the truth, as the large scale conversion of either virgin or existing agricultural land into monoculture plantations is neither good for people nor the planet. Whilst still connected to the theme of climate change, this is an issue that is easy to sell to people as the effects of this ill-conceived plan are clear and immediate for everyone to see.
What is the legislation?
In April 2007 European member states agreed to a proposal for a mandatory target that
agrofuels should make up to 10% of all transport fuels (by energy content) by 2020. Certain conditions have been applied to this in order to allay concerns over the possible negative impacts, such as sustainability criteria that states “Biofuels and other bioliquids…shall not be made from raw material obtained from land with recognised high biodiversity value” and that the 10% should come from “renewable energy”. However, in practice economic pressure will lead to the target being met by the cheapest option. In addition, the sustainability criteria that have been proposed at the EU are not strong enough to prevent degradation of land in the developing world and they include no measures to address social impacts.
Surely something that grows and absorbs CO2 in the process is better for the environment than fossil fuels and will have less impact overall in terms of emissions. This is the argument that has been used to support the use of biofuels. However, there are many other factors to take into account when looking at the carbon footprint of agrofuels.
Far from decreasing emissions, agrofuels actually increase them. What has become clear through research is that when land use, use of fertilisers to grow the crops, production and transportation of the finished product are taken into account, the net carbon impact is actually higher than burning fossil fuels.
It would be almost impossible to grow all the crops we need for the quantity of biofuels proposed, as this would require 40% of all our agricultural land. Instead, they are imported from developing countries, where virgin rain forest, grasslands or wetlands are often being cleared for its production. These places are known as carbon sinks because the native vegetation has significant properties of carbon storage. Clearing and converting them at such a time when we need to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is the last thing we should consider.
The growing of these commercial crops requires large amounts of fertiliser, in order for the yield to be sufficiently large. The production of this fertiliser releases nitrous oxide, a gas which is 300 times more potent in terms of its greenhouse effect than CO2. Therefore, even the use of crops that are grown in the European Union, such as rape seed, have been shown to contribute more to climate change than burning fossil fuels.
Finally, the production of the actual fuels requires energy, which comes from burning fossil fuels. The transportation of huge containers carrying the finished product also requires large amounts of fossil fuels to be burnt. A law which is supposed to be reducing emissions is actually increasing them, so it is imperative that it should not be passed.
Are agrofuels responsible for food shortages and increases in prices?
While agrofuels are not the only factor in the massive increase in food prices over the last couple of years, most experts agree that they are a major factor. A leaked report from the World Bank suggests that biofuels are responsible for world food price rises of around 75%. Countries where people spend 50-80% of their money on food are the ones where such increases will be felt the most. Oxfam has stated that 600 million more people than already predicted will not have enough to eat by 2020 due to these targets.
Grain reserves are now at an all-time low, despite this the EU is looking to increase the amount of biodiesel produced. The financial incentive is for more people to grow crops for fuel rather than food. Even in our own affluent country people are complaining about high food prices. So to be pursuing this target, which will lead to further increases in the cost of food and reduce the amount grown for human consumption, is baffling to say the least.
Displacement of native people and destruction of rainforests
The arguments for not destroying rainforests are well known to us now, as they support an incredible amount of biodiversity, as well as being the lungs for the planet by producing oxygen and sequestering carbon dioxide. The unsustainable level of demand for agrofuels is creating competition over how land is used and inevitably this means that the big, agrofuel-growing corporations win out over local farmers, who are then pushed into areas where they destroy virgin land and come into conflict with forest dwellers. Communities are at risk from land-grabbing practices, as well as being forced into working as labourers on massive plantations and many experts are convinced that the sustainability criteria will not protect communities from any of these social consequences.
It seems that we have been talking about the same solutions to the problem of energy supply for many years, but as they are the alternatives to agrofuels too, it would be strange not to mention them again. A more sustainable transport system needs to be developed and car manufactures forced to improve the efficiency of their vehicles through legally-binding targets for CO2 emissions. If this is done in conjunction with producing more renewable energy for domestic electricity supply, it would have a significant impact on levels of greenhouse gas emissions.
For more detailed information on suggestions for changes to legislation regarding vehicles look on the Friends of the Earth website. You may also write to your Member of the European Parliament here: http://www.foe.co.uk/biofuels