Article by Dr Andrew Boswell
A slightly different version of this article was published in Green World, the publication of the Green Party of England and Wales in January 2008.
The RTFO mandates 2.5% agrofuels at the pump from April 15th 2008 (April Biofools Day). There are opportunities to be grasped now on two fronts. The new political awareness of agrofuel problems is ripe for lobbying, both in the UK to demand the RTFO targets are scrapped, and in Europe to demand that EU agrofuel expansion, targets and imports are scrapped. We must take forward the spirit of our innovative moratorium call into local, national and European campaigning against mass scale agrofuel refineries, farming and policy. The second front is the growing protest and direct action movement against agrofuels.
2008, the year to stop agrofuels
The climate crisis deepens whilst addiction to economic growth drives ever greater power and transport energy ‘needs'(1). False solutions to energy dependency, peak everything and climate devastation abound as corporates and governments back tar sand and oil shale extraction, nuclear energy, ‘clean’ coal, and industrial agrofuel production.
In the case of agrofuels, or mass scale liquid biofuels, 2007 was the year that the world woke up to the significant climate, social and human injustice impacts(2) of this new energy technology being foisted on the world. This is being driven by energy policy in industrialised nations against the background of a hollow public policy debate(3) despite the broad evidence base (4,5), emerging of agrofuels causing climate change, deforestation, peatland destruction, loss of habitats / biodiversity, water depletion, soil erosion, greater use of agri-chemicals. Further agrofuels are causing social and human misery by generating poverty, land grabbing, land conflicts, human rights abuses, labour abuses, starvation and food insecurity.
At least 5 moratorium calls, including calls from as far apart as from Africa, the US, and at the UN were made in 2007 – see details at www.biofuelwatch.org.uk. The Green Party of England and Wales led at their autumn 2007 Liverpool conference and became the first political party to call for a moratorium on agrofuels within the EU(6).
In early 2008, the EU Commission will put forward legislation for an extremely aggressive target of 10% agrofuels at the pump across the EU by 2020. Yet agrofuel production will not keep up with the projected increase in liquid fuel demands, and rather than substitute fossil fuel use, agrofuels amount to just an additional burnable fuel source. Governments want such ‘green’ veneer policies to avoid the real changes needed to tackle climate change; they also want consumers to be deluded that by using a ‘bit of biofuel’ they can carry on driving (the economy).
The other side of the EU target coin is massive new climate damaging industries in both the South and Europe. Over 20 million hectares are already earmarked for further palm oil development in SE Asia where it will lead to massive emissions from deforestation and peatland destruction. Europe is likely to see millions of hectares more of industrial agriculture for agrofuels using heavy nitrogen fertilizers that release nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas, that renders the final agrofuel more climate damaging than the fossil fuel it is blended with(7).
Indonesia is among the top three GHG emitters in the world due to its deforestation and peatland destruction as highlighted in a March 2007 report from DFID and the World Bank(8,9). How ironic that UN climate talks for 2007 were hosted by this nation, who are on the brink of committing climate crimes against the planet and people(10,11), potentially as devastating as China and the US. Not surprising that Bali did provide a focus for some intense international agrofuels campaigning with protests in London(12) and Bali(13) on the December 8th day of Global Climate Action.
A large group of southern and northern NGOs called on governments at Bali to grasp a ‘last opportunity’ to stop runaway climate change and the 18-20% of GHGs caused by deforestation(14). They highlighted that carbon trading based ‘solutions’ proposed at Bali will encourage the commoditisation of forests and encroachment of industrial agriculture into forestlands. On agrofuels, they demanded: a halt to production and trade of agrofuels; and suspension of all targets and other incentives, including subsidies, carbon trading and public and private finance schemes.
Other NGO calls including agrofuels highlighted indigenous(15), women’s issues(16), and for the North to transform consumption and policy away from heavy reliance on raw materials and energy from the South(17).
As 2007 ended, the UN warned that 20 African countries as well as Iraq, Afghanistan, Nepal and Pakistan faced critical food shortages as world food prices soared to record levels(18). Food riots caused by shortages and rising prices have occurred in Mexico, Morocco, Uzbekistan, Yemen and Senegal. This crisis has multiple causes. Food supplies are ‘rapidly dwindling’ due to crop failures caused by climate and natural disasters, and increased feed demand for livestock in India and China. The market and physical displacement of crops from food to fuel is also a key factor, see detailed analysis in the IFPRI report in the references(19): the devastating impact of agrofuels on food security is to be reviewed at a UN conference in June(20).
Against the backdrop of emerging evidence from international bodies including the UN, WTO, IMF, and OECD of agrofuel’s role in the developing food crisis, a Commons committee debated (21) levels for UK agrofuel targets on October 23rd. Yet, under opposition questioning, UK transport minister Jim Fitzpatrick claimed “to have demonstrated” that government agrofuel policy could not impact food security or starvation. This New Labour denial of the evidence – “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” – is one of the most chilling examples of UK Government doublespeak that I can recall.
However, this Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) debate revealed a growing unease amongst politicians about current agrofuel policy. After lobbying from the Green Party, biofuelwatch and Greenpeace, no opposition MPs voted for the RTFO targets [2 Lib Dem abstentions, 5 Tory ‘Noes’]. It is clear that Government only got this policy through by imposing a de facto whip on their 10 worried MPs on the committee. Concern at Westminster was highly evident too in the Commons Environmental Audit Committee inquiry ‘Are Biofuels Sustainable?’ that will report early 2008. This group of cross party MPs called for there to be a delay, or moratorium(22) , on the Governments biofuel targets because some biofuels emit more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels, and carbon sinks and rainforests are being destroyed in order to grow crops. The report states that current UK and EU policy is misguided.
Concerns belatedly started to reach the top of the EU in late January 2008 when Environment Commissioner, Stavros Dimas(23), admitted that they ‘had not foreseen all the problems’ that EU biofuels policy would cause. And just the previous week, Louis Michel, the EU Development Commissioner stated that he agreed that governments should impose an international moratorium on increasing biofuel targets (24) because of the impact that growing crops for fuel has on food security in the poorest countries
Where now in 2008? First be wary, very wary, of the emerging breed of ‘I’m not palm oil or a food crop, so I’m OK’ agrofuels being promoted. Mass scale jatropha agrodiesel and ligno-cellulosic (LC) ethanol are front runners for governments and industry trying to sell the agrofuel myth in new clothes. Industrial scale Jatropha(25) is predicated on huge land grabs into the South and LC (26) on intensive GM technology – read more on the biofuelwatch message board (27).
The RTFO mandates 2.5% agrofuels at the pump from April 15th 2008 (April Biofools Day). There are opportunities to be grasped now on two fronts. The new political awareness of agrofuel problems (28) is ripe for lobbying, both in the UK to demand the RTFO targets are scrapped, and in Europe to demand that EU agrofuel expansion, targets and imports are scrapped. We must take forward the spirit of our innovative moratorium call into local, national and European campaigning against mass scale agrofuel refineries, farming and policy. The second front is the growing protest and direct action movement against agrofuels – check out www.biofuelwatch.org.uk for action alerts and information.
U.S. Department of Energy, International Energy Outlook, 2007, See 71% growth in predicted energy between 2003 and 2030, figures 8 and 10
‘The Biofuel Timebomb’ by Dr Andrew Boswell, Journal of the International Tree Foundation , December 2007
‘Biofuels : an unfolding disaster’ by Dr Andrew Boswell, ECOS, British Association of Nature Conservationists, December 2007
Agrofuels – Towards a reality check in nine key areas – Biofuelwatch, Carbon Trade Watch/TNI, Corporate Europe Observatory, Econexus, Ecoropa,Grupo de Reflexión Rural, Munlochy Vigil, NOAH (Friends of the Earth Denmark), Rettet Den Regenwald and Watch Indonesia
Stop the agrofuel craze!, GRAIN
Greens call for an end to Biofuels, 19/09/07
‘N2O release from agro-biofuel production negates global warming reduction by replacing fossil fuels’, P.Crutzen et al, Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics
World Bank Press Release, 8/5/07, Carbon dioxide emissions on the rise, warns World Bank publication
‘Executive Summary: Indonesia and Climate Change’, World Bank and UK DFID, March 2007
The bog barons: Indonesia’s carbon catastrophe, Fred Pearce, New Scientist, December 1st 2007
Wetlands International, 21/12/2006, ‘Peat CO2’
Green Principal Speaker joins biofuels protest
Global day of action against climate change, Bali, 8th December 2007
Protecting the world’s forests needs more than just money, Bali Declaration from over 50 NGOs
biofuelwatch, ‘Declarations From The South’ page
Call for 6 Key Steps Towards Gender And Climate Justice Regarding Agrofuels, MADRE and other NGOs
Indonesian Civil Society Forum call for Climate Justice
UN issues warning of critical food shortages
IFPRI report – The World Food Situation: New Driving Forces And Required Actions, Beijing, Dec 2007
UN FAO, High-Level Conference on World Food Security and the Challenges of Climate Change and Bioenergy, 3 to 5 June 2008
transcript of UK commons Delegated Legislation Committee on the RTFO, 23/10/07
Guardian, 21/1/08, MPs call for moratorium on biofuel targets
EU renewables policy: doubts and flaws, Transnational Institute, Press Briefing, 23/1/08
Interview with Louis Michel, EU Development Commissioner
Search for Jatropha on biofuelwatch message board
Search for cellulosic on biofuelwatch message board
Gordon Brown, speech 19/11/07, recognises agrofuel issues