Biofuels and the Impending Climate Catastrophe

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By Pete Ashley

From Permanent Revolution, August 18, 2007

As the impending climate change catastrophe grows in scale and urgency, politicians feel the need to be seen to be “doing something”. This largely consists of launching schemes which avoid making businesses drastically reduce their CO2 emissions. One such scheme is George Bush’s sudden infatuation with bio-fuels, growing crops to produce fuel for transport.

Some green campaigners support the idea as a contribution to reducing carbon emissions, Others have denounced it as “greenwash.” It has also divided heads of state, especially in Latin America where Hugo Chavez has headed the critics, while Brazil’s President Lula has supported the expansion of crops for bio-fuels.

According to Lula, “It is important to do away with certain myths. Ethanol use does not threaten the environment.” Surprise, surprise, Brazil is a leading producer of bio-fuel ethanol. Lula claims that the speed of deforestation, a major contributor to CO2 emissions, has declined dramatically and that only 4% of cultivated land in Brazil is planted for sugar cane for ethanol production. In a put-down directed at Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, he said, “It is normal for those countries that have oil to feel a bit strange about the idea of bio-fuels.”

Both Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, ageing leader of a Cuba increasingly dependent on Venezuela’s subsidized oil exports, have spoken against the use of bio-fuels, arguing that growing these crops is “putting cars before food”. They claim the switch of agriculture towards bio-fuel production will reduce the amount of crops produced for food and hence cause prices to rise, at the expense of the poor who do not drive bio-fuel cars.

In Argentina, where 38 million people already live in poverty, the government is offering tax incentives to help achieve a target of 5% of the nation’s fuel supply to be from bio-fuels in three years.

Chavez has particularly criticized George Bush who launched a campaign for more bio-fuel in his recent tour of Latin America. As Mark Lynas says in his new book Six Degrees – Our Future on a Hotter Planet, “already corn-derived ethanol is being blended into gasoline in the USA, ostensibly to reduce CO2 emissions, but in reality having more to do with subsidizing the politically powerful farming lobby in ‘red’ republican states.” As well as reducing the US balance of payments deficit, which has surged alongside the recent rise in oil prices, there is a lot of money to be made for growing maize for bio-fuel.

And where the US goes, the UK follows. Gordon Brown has recently announced that all suppliers in the UK will have to ensure that 2.5% of the fuel they now sell is made from plants or pay a penalty of 15p a litre, the obligation rising to 5% by 2010. Tesco, through a part owned company “Greenery”, is already using 5% bio-fuel in its petrol at 185 of its filling stations. The government can see that bio-fuels don’t upset drivers, as they appear to reduce carbon without the need for new taxes or reducing car use.

So where does the truth lie? Supporters of bio-fuels argue that they are an effective way of reducing greenhouse gases, as the carbon expended in their use exactly matches the carbon saved during their creation. They are a zero sum solution to fuel use. But at present there are many problems.

  • Firstly, growing these crops, rather than food crops, has led to huge increases in grain prices around the world. Since the beginning of last year the price of maize has doubled, and the price of wheat has also reached a ten year high. At the same time global stockpiles of both grains has reached 25 year lows. Already there have been food riots in Mexico due to shortages of maize. The US Department of Agriculture is forecasting even lower stockpiles next year. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the main reason is the demand for ethanol – the alcohol used for motor fuel, which can be made from maize and wheat. This hits poor consumers of food grains, but benefits farmers who receive higher prices for their output.
  • Secondly, growing crops for bio-fuel has also already led to huge levels of deforestation. As George Monbiot pointed out last year in Heat – How to Stop the Planet Burning between 1985 and 2005 the development of oil palm plantations was responsible for an estimated 87% of deforestation in Malaysia. The situation is even worse in Indonesia, where 98% of the rainforest will be degraded or lost by 2022, largely due to planting palm oil to turn into diesel for European cars. Writing earlier this year, he shows that it gets even worse! According to a report from a Dutch consultancy firm, every tonne of palm oil results in 33 tonnes of CO2 emissions, or ten times that produced for petroleum! According to none other than the World Bank, deforestation alone is responsible for 25% of global carbon emissions.
  • Finally, with deforestation also comes massive loss of biodiversity and species extinction, such as the iconic orangutan in Borneo and the Sumatran tiger, among many others. Reports are showing that it is huge habitat loss, rather than climate change itself, that is currently causing the biggest pressures on species survival.

Many leading campaigners, such as Mark Lynas and George Monbiot, are opposed to bio-fuel production at present. Monbiot argues for a “second generation” of bio-fuels to be produced, which are cheaper and more efficient to produce, such as from grass and wood. He admits this is some way off happening, and calls for a five year moratorium on bio-fuel production. He points out that in the UK running our cars, buses, and lorries on bio-diesel would require 25.9m hectares of land, but we only have 5.7m hectares of arable land in total!

Likewise, a recent report from also highlights grave concerns. It said that “a small reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, due to bio-fuel production, will be at the expense of large increases in greenhouse gases due to deforestation, nitrous oxide emissions, carbon emissions from the loss of soil organic carbon, peat fires and oxidation, and potentially the loss of major carbon sinks.”

As the UN report cited earlier states, “there is no doubting that bio-fuels can be used in place of petrol and diesel and can play a significant part in reducing emissions from transport.” But it also goes on to say that “at their worst, bio-fuel programmes can result in a concentration of ownership that could drive the world’s poorest farmers off their land and into deeper poverty.” And certainly the growth of massive urban centres particularly in Africa and Asia outstripping the available infrastructure, is both a testament to the crisis of subsistence agriculture and the inability of capitalism, even in its present relatively dynamic phase, to meet the needs of the world’s poor.

As Mark Lynas says, “Given that world food stocks are already at historic lows because of population growth and droughts, devoting more of our best farmland to growing food for cars seems close to insane … the reality is simple: you can use land to feed cars or to feed people, but not both.”

And we could add the rising living standards and food consumption of, in particular the Asian urban population, which has transformed China, for example, from a net food exporter, to a massive importer of food stuffs over the last ten years.

So where do we stand in this debate? We should demand:

  • An immediate worldwide moratorium on expansion of the growing crops for bio-fuels, and its ending where it exacerbates deforestation.
  • Full compensation for all poor farmers currently growing these crops.
  • A massive programme of research and development into current and alternative bio-fuel crops, funded by the wealthy governments whose car-driving citizens contribute most to the problem.

The world’s working class and poor cannot afford to let the capitalist multinational corporations and their representatives in government make the running on climate change. There are many simple and immediate initiatives which, if adequately funded, could sharply reduce carbon emissions now – banning old fashioned light bulbs, savagely taxing high emitting cars, providing free insulation and double glazing to whoever needs it, as well as undertaking a huge expansion of renewable energy, tidal barrages, wind and solar power and improving recycling. All these measures are less damaging to the environment than a massive expansion of crop growing for bio-fuels.