Civil society groups reject the impact of an exponential growth of the Bioeconomy

Open Letter to the members of the BioFuture Platform, signed by 120 organisations from 40 countries. 

Click here for a referenced version with the list of signatories.

Civil society groups reject the impact of an exponential growth of the Bioeconomy

In recent years, governments have given support to substitute fossil fuels with biomass for energy, in the name of climate change. Increasingly, they are also considering support for other products made out of bio-materials, which is fashionably named the ‘bioeconomy.’

The Biofuture Platform, an initiative proposed by the Brazilian government and launched with support from 20 countries in 2016, is one example. However, a closer look at this Platform shows that the bioeconomy is simply a cover-up for a significant increase in bioenergy, together with other short lived ‘bio-products’ whose climate credentials are as bad for the climate as bioenergy. [1] The European Union and several countries (which have not so far signed up to the BioFuture Platform) are also developing ‘bioeconomy strategies’ with a similar purpose. [2]

The undersigned organisations are concerned that scaling-up the use of bioenergy and other short-lived bio-products (the so-called-bioeconomy) will have detrimental impacts on the climate, human rights, nature protection, and the transition to a low-carbon energy system. We reject the BioFuture Platform and other similar developments for the following reasons:

Bad for the climate:

To meet the Paris Agreement goal of keeping the global temperature rise below 1.5 degrees, we must swiftly phase out emissions and simultaneously increase the amount of carbon that can be removed by forests, grasslands, and soils. In direct opposition to this, the BioFuture Platform advocates transitioning the energy, transport, and industrial sectors to bioenergy and biomaterials. This ignores the science – burning biomass for energy releases as many emissions as burning coal[3], while the production and consumption of biofuels, bioplastic or other biomaterials reduces land available for crops, leads to deforestation and other land conversions, and releases nitrous oxide.

To mitigate the worst effects of climate change, we need governments, NGOs, academia, and the private sector to work together to reduce overconsumption of energy and decarbonize the energy, transport, and industrial sectors – not merely allow the rich to continue over-consuming whilst transitioning to another carbon-intensive resource.

Bad for human rights:

An industrial bioeconomy would increase demand for land to grow biomass. This would drive deforestation and other land use change on a scale that would have devastating impacts on people. A conservative study about the global biomass potential [4] found that for bioenergy to provide five per cent of global energy use, it would require the conversion of an area of land larger than India (386 million hectares). The bioeconomy foreseen by the BioFuture Platform would need even more land to be converted for bioproducts. The underlying assumption is that most the land needed to convert the fossil fuel economy to the bioeconomy would be provided by the global South. But growing demand for biofuels and biomass for heat and electricity, has already led to large-scale land grabbing and the eviction of entire villages, and reduced access to farmland, forest and water resources. [5] Expanding demand will worsen those impacts, especially where forests are replaced by plantations, increasing pesticide poisoning and labour rights violations, and reducing clean water and food sovereignty. In addition, the processing and burning of biomass for energy releases a variety of toxic emissions, posing additional health risks.

Bad for nature and biodiversity:

We are in the midst of a biodiversity crisis, which will be worsened by the BioFuture Platform’s proposals to increase demand for land, water, and forests. Demand for palm oil and soy is already accelerating forest destruction in many countries and intensification of agriculture (more chemicals, less fallow land) in Europe and North America is accelerating the decline in insects and birds. [6] Demand for bioenergy has already led to the clearcutting of highly biodiverse forests in the southern US, [7] the Baltic States [8] and elsewhere, and as monoculture plantations advance, agrobiodiversity reduces, and nature suffers. Plantations for bioplastics and other biomaterials will just make these problems worse. We need to be reducing demand for wood and crops, not increasing it. There is also an assumption that production of bioproducts will depend heavily on use of genetically engineered crops, trees, and microbes, all of which pose serious risks to the environment and human health.

Bad for a just transition from the fossil fuel economy:

The BioFuture Platform’s vision distracts attention and resources away from real, proven solutions to climate change and entrenches energy, social and economic injustices around the world. It would encourage further bioenergy subsidies at the expense of genuinely low-carbon renewable energy such as wind and solar power which must be immediately scaled up in a manner which respects community rights. “Modern bioenergy” (biofuels and biomass for heat and electricity) promoted by the BioFuture Platform is primarily used in the global North and by the energy-hungry industries who should be reducing consumption. Bioenergy gives them a get out clause from dealing with their wasteful consumption.
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The undersigned groups call on the 20 countries and the multilateral organisations that are signatories to the BioFuture Platform to end support for bioenergy and other short-lived bioproducts. We call on other governments to refrain from supporting the Platform and its demands. We call instead for governments to propose meaningful and equitable responses to the climate crisis which respect human rights, focus on proven low carbon technologies, reduce overconsumption and waste, and protect forests and other ecosystems.