Europe continues ill-advised rush to biofuels

Just as there are risks in delaying policy action on an important issue like climate change, so there are dangers too in rushing to legislation before all the facts are known and understood. This has surely been the case with laws and incentives to increase the use of biofuels in transport – likely the most spectacular example of bad climate policy the world has seen so far. Stuck with biofuels policies dating back nearly ten years, the EU is desperately trying to make its legislation retrospectively sustainable in the barest environmental sense. But the evidence available suggests that it will fail – and that pro-biofuels measures should simply be repealed.

Evidence to date suggests that biofuels have not just been an environmental disaster, but a social one too – fuelling poverty by raising the price of foodstuffs and pushing millions of people into hunger as a result. Due to the perverse incentives of biofuels production, there are real social justice issues being raised, as the charity ActionAid asserts:

Biofuels targets are providing an incentive to large multinational companies to oust farmers in poor countries from their land. In just five African countries, 1.1 million hectares have already been given over to biofuels – an area the size of Belgium. And this is global land grab is affecting people all over the developing world. Just recently in Kenya, we have been working with people that are in danger of losing their land to a giant biofuel plantation, which once completed will result in up to six times more carbon emissions than fossil fuels.

The Kenya case is instructive, because it appears to be an especially egregious example of socially and environmentally-destructive biofuels development. The 50,000-hectare project would deforest a rare piece of coastal woodland – home to endangered birds as well as tribal people – in order to plant jatropha bushes which produce oil that can be used as a biofuel feedstock in Europe. A BBC correspondent visited the area in March, and it seems that local residents are indeed extremely unhappy about the proposal, as well they might be.

To give the EU its due, the Commission has made clear that it is aware of and concerned about the dangers of environmentally-destructive biofuels. The directive demanding 10% share of renewable fuels in transport by 2020 is “subject to production being sustainable [and] second-generation biofuels becoming commercially available”. Arguably, neither of these conditions are even close to being achieved. For the former, sustainability is extremely difficult to define – the Commission has tried to examine the potential for indirect land-use change via complex modelling studies, but these provide limited insight.

The problem is, you can’t tell for sure when a forest is levelled whether biofuels production hundreds of miles away – or even in a different country – had anything to do with it. It is obviously likely that by raising food prices biofuels strengthen incentives to bring new areas – perhaps sensitive ecosystems like peat-based tropical forests – under the plough… but no-one can prove the relative contribution made by biofuels as opposed to other factors (like increasing demand for meat and weather-related poor harvests).

And figuring out the full life-cycle greenhouse gas implications of biofuels is also very difficult. Ideally you factor in the existing carbon stock of the land (both in soil and natural vegetation) before it is cleared, and subtract that from your purported biofuels carbon savings. Nitrous oxide (a very powerful greenhouse gas) emissions from the additional use of fertiliser should also be considered. Biofuels also need transport and processing, which add to the energy penalty attached to them (although, in fairness, so too do regular fossil fuels).

For the Kenyan case, several NGOs commissioned consultants to study the greenhouse gas implications of the Dakatcha woodlands jatropha project. They conclude [PDF] (though one should bear in mind that consultant reports always seem to support the views of their sponsors) that jatropha oil-derived biofuels produced on cleared Kenyan land would produce emissions 2.5 to 6 times higher than their fossil fuel equivalents. If true (and the methodology looks solid to me) then this is surely an example of misguided climate policy having undeniable stunningly negative impacts in the difficult conditions of the real world. That biofuel derived from deforesting the Dakatcha woodlands could be poured into European cars and counted towards renewable fuels targets is beyond lunacy.

For its part, ActionAid draws some pretty strong conclusions, as the following video shows.

ActionAid is also asking UK residents to write or text the Department for Transport, which is currently consulting on the future of Britain’s domestic biofuels targets.

As does the EU, the UK government is eager to show its commitment to the sustainability of biofuels imports. But the problem is surely that we don’t need them at all, and legislation – both at the UK and European level – must be revised to reflect this. It is now quite clear that the only way to decarbonise road transport is via electricity: with battery-fuelled cars and trucks, recharged using renewable electricity. (The beauty of this is that battery recharging is entirely compatible with intermittent renewable sources of energy like offshore wind.)

The only exception that I can see is aviation (and possibly shipping). There is no conceivable way that electric planes can ply our skies, and hydrogen aircraft are similarly still only science fiction. So with jet aircraft stuck with liquid hydrocarbon fuels, the only likely way we can begin to take fossil carbon out of aviation is to reserve biofuels production for that sector only, and make very sure that the biofuels that are produced deliver major greenhouse gas benefits. British Airways, Virgin and several other aviation operators seem to have realised this, and are already trialling biofuelled jets, as is the US military.

The biofuels story should be a cautionary tale, that even (or perhaps especially) well-motivated policies can have damaging real-world impacts. We have limited land, water and fertiliser available on this planet, and we need to make very sure that our efforts to decarbonise the global economy without sacrificing the lifestyle benefits of the modern world do not swap our climate change problem for something even worse.

© Mark Lynas
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