Biofuel and its controversies

By Manon Godot, Januray 2010

European objectives of biofuels use and sustainability criteria

The purpose of the Directive 2009/28/EC is the following:

“This Directive establishes a common framework for the promotion of energy from renewable sources. It sets mandatory national targets for the overall share of energy from renewable sources in gross final consumption of energy and for the share of energy from renewable sources in transport. It lays down rules relating to statistical transfers between Member States, joint projects between Member States and with third countries, guarantees of origin, administrative procedures, information and training, and access to the electricity grid for energy from renewable sources.”

The article 3.4 of the new Directive fixes an objective of 10% of share of energy from renewable sources in all form of transports in 2020 in each member state. The Directive specifies that the total amount of energy consumed taken into account for the calculation must correspond to the total consumption of petrol, diesel and biofuels used in road and rail transport, as well as electricity. Concerning the use of renewable energies, all types of energy from renewable sources consumed in all forms of transports shall be taken into account.

In order to face all the criticisms rose against these new alternatives by a large part of the civil community as well as by numerous NGOs, associations and organisations of defence of the environment, Human and social rights, the EU established in 2009 a clause of sustainability criteria for biofuels. The article 17 of the Directive 2009/28 determines the sustainability criteria concerning the raw materials cultivated inside or outside the territory of the EU.

According to the new EU regulation:

“the increasing worldwide demand for biofuels and bioliquids, and the incentives for their use provided for in this Directive, should not have the effect of encouraging the destruction of biodiverse lands […] For these reasons, it is necessary to provide sustainability criteria ensuring that biofuels and bioliquids can qualify for the incentives only when it can be guaranteed that they do not originate in biodiverse areas or, in the case of areas designated for nature protection purposes or for the protection of rare, threatened or endangered ecosystems or species, the relevant competent authority demonstrates that the production of the raw material does not interfere with those purposes […]  The incentives provided for in this Directive will encourage increased production of biofuels and bioliquids worldwide. Where biofuels and bioliquids are made from raw material produced within the Community, they should also comply with Community environmental requirements for agriculture […] However, there is a concern that production of biofuels and bioliquids in certain third countries might not respect minimum environmental or social requirements. It is therefore appropriate to encourage the development of multilateral and bilateral agreements and voluntary international or national schemes that cover key environmental and social considerations, in order to promote the production of biofuels and bioliquids worldwide in a sustainable manner. In the absence of such agreements or schemes, Member States should require economic operators to report on those issues.

So basically, the Directive acknowledges the fact that the biofuels production is going to become a worldwide production, which extends to third countries, who for some, are susceptible to environmental and social rights abuses; and that it is the responsibility of the economic operator (who are obviously only led by economic interests) to report on these issues.

Controversial production of biofuels and weakness of the EU sustainability clause

The growing implantation of biofuels in the EU market in order to comply with the new Directive’s objective is meant to make the biofuels production become a worldwide mass production. As any mass consumption product, multinational companies implanted in developing countries could become the main producers of these products. It is already the case for example with palm oil, cultivated in mass in Malaysia and Indonesia. The dangers of mass production of the biomass have already been rose by plenty of NGOs and associations aware of the numerous social and ecological harms of this alternative (Oxfam, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Bird life International, FERN, European Environmental Bureau, etc.). The harms of biofuels are well known and numerous. Among them, the destruction of rainforests and biodiversity, the competition between food and biofuels concerning the use of the lands and use of the crops, causing an increase of the prices of both and originating problems of starvation in developing countries, the numerous violations of Human Rights (expropriation of small farmers, violation of forests populations rights, etc.), or the waste of water and excessive use of chemicals to grow biomass and produce biofuels, has been worrying the world civil community as well as the organisations of protection of the environment and Human Rights for years.

Organisations such as ‘Friends of the Earth’ and the ‘Global Forest Coalition’ claim that the deforestation is accelerating due to biofuels plantations, reminding at the same time that forest host more than 70% of the terrestrial biodiversity. For example in Brazil, the destruction of the Amazon rainforest is a consequence of the cultivation of biofuels, even if often in an indirect way. Meaning that even if only a fraction of this cultivation currently occurs in the rainforest, the deforestation occurs by displacing small farmers and cattle producers (to grow biofuels material on their land), who then have to clear themselves the forest for subsistence agriculture and pasture (according to Dr. Daniel Nepstad of the Woods Hole Research Centre).

Also the production of palm oil for biofuel in Malaysia and Indonesia is originating a massive destruction of the rainforests, in particular in Borneo. Indonesia is indeed the first world producer of crude palm oil, and Malaysia the largest world producer of palm oil. The worldwide demand of palm oil from Indonesia is now causing millions of hectares of forests to be cleared for plantations and destroying the livelihoods of indigenous peoples. Many of the 60-90 million people in Indonesia who depend on the forests are losing their land to the palm oil companies, while pollution from pesticides, fertilisers and the pressing process is also leaving some villages without clean water. The Penan, one of the world’s last nomadic peoples still inhabiting the primeval forests, are nowadays forced to leave the rainforest in order for the multinationals to be able to grow palm oil for a worldwide consumption. The palm oil industry lobby are responsible of violations of Human Rights such as intimidations and violence against the forest communities, as well as massive destruction of the wildlife and biodiversity. The fact that biodiesel produced on palm oil plantations planted on converted rainforests can have far higher net carbon emissions than diesel produced from fossil fuels also makes the production of biofuels from palm oil absurd form an ecologic point of view.

Of course the EU planed, with its new clause of sustainable criteria in 2009, to protect rainforests and its populations, in order to make the use of biofuels more ethical. However according to the ‘EU observer’, a leaked draft version of a EU Commission report suggest that the European Commission and some EU Member States are trying to redefine palm oil plantations as ‘intact forests’, allowing that way to continue destroying the rainforest and violating the rights of the indigenous people while respecting the sustainability criteria. The Malaysian Palm Oil Council and Indonesian Palm Oil Association employed international lobbyist ‘Gplus’ to pressure EU and its Member States into embracing palm oil, and the objective of the lobbyists seems to become reality through this EU commission draft report.

The 2009 report “Biofuels, handle with care” edited by several organisations like ‘Oxfam’ and ‘Friends of the earth’ also reminds the fact that the “impact of indirect land use change” (the fact that when agricultural land is converted for biofuel production, lands elsewhere will have to be converted for agriculture, releasing Co2) is not included in the Greenhouse gas emission calculation. The omission of this element in the calculation corrupts the public results of the amount of Co2 release saved. The report recommends that the EU changes its calculation, taking into account the actual reduction of Co2 released, rather that the percentage of biofuel consumed. That way the EU would be able to make sure that the pollution caused by the indirect land use, the use of pesticides, fertiliser, the processing of biomass into biofuels, etc. is still inferior the saving of Co2 release induced by the use of biofuels for transport. The actual way of calculation can make us wonder is the EU is making the economic interest of the companies producers of biofuels take precedence over a real benefit for the environment.

The expansion of biofuels is also threatening the food production, causing mass starvation in developing countries. According to John Beddington, Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK government and professor of Applied Population Biology at Imperial College London, “It’s very hard to imagine how we can see the world growing enough crops to produce renewable energy and at the same time meet the enormous demand for food.” In his first important public speech, he described the potential impacts of food shortages as the “elephant in the room” and “a problem which rivalled that of climate change”. Indeed one of the side effects of the production of biofuels is a decrease of the number of land available for growing food, causing a competition between food and biofuels production. The consequences of such a competition are an increase of the price of basic food products, like the sugar, corn, etc (usable for biofuels), and all kind of food (less space for growing everything). For example, 240 kg of maize are required to produce 100L of Ethanol, while that quantity represents the right amount of food to feed one person during one year.

In 2007, United Nation’s special rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, qualified as a “crime against humanity”, and “recipe for disaster” the practice that consists on diverting “arable land to the production of crops which are the burned for fuel, calling for a five-years ban on the practice. According to him, within that time scientists would be able to produce biofuels from agricultural waste (Second Generation of Biofuels). In 2009 this king of fuels can indeed be produced, but biofuels produced from food crops still represents a large part of the global consumption. In 2008, the new UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier de Schutter, urged a freeze on biofuels investments, claiming” the blind pursuit of the policy is ‘irresponsible’.” Mr. De Schutter insisted, declaring that the European and American goals for biofuels production were unrealistic. He qualified EU and USA’s biofuels politics as “irresponsible”, saying “biofuels rush is a scandal that only serves the interests of a tiny lobby.” In June of 2009, the UN’s rapporteur insisted on the fact that biofuels remain an “important driver behind big land acquisitions and land leases in poor countries that jeopardize local inhabitants’ food security.” “There still is a vast market for first-generation agrofuels,” said Mr. De Schutter, who added that he considered the safeguards adopted by the European Union in 2008 “absolutely insufficient to monitor to the impacts on the countries concerned by shifts in land use for agrofuels production.” Mr. De Schutter reminded that the next generations of biofuels are not developed enough for the moment to “continue to insist on the use of agrofuels for transport.” He also underlined that the second generation of biofuels “will be hugely water consuming”, the lack of water being the potential biggest problem of humanity.


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