Biofuels: Promise or Threat?


In the coming weeks, the Obama administration is expected to release its plans to address the dual problems of global climate disruption and excessive dependence on foreign oil. Meanwhile, in the background, the debate among environmentalists over biofuels and their contribution to future energy needs continues to intensify. Many mainstream greens actively support biofuels as a central element in an anticipated future mix of energy sources, but voices from the global South are often far more critical. They insist that fuels such as biodiesel, bioethanol and proposed “second generation” fuels be termed “agrofuels,” viewing their widespread use as a potential boon for global agribusiness corporations, with potentially devastating consequences for land-based peoples. This view is now gaining widespread support from groups in the US and Europe.

Last week, the Sierra Club and Worldwatch Institute attempted to sidestep these concerns with their new report, titled “Smart Choices for Biofuels”. They appear to have never even asked the more fundamental question “Are Biofuels a Smart Choice?” To this question, a growing number of environmental and human rights organizations are responding with a clear and resounding “no.”

A recent letter initiated by eleven US-based civil society groups highlights the rapidly growing literature demonstrating that biofuels/agrofuels are worsening climate change, driving deforestation, displacing rural smallholder farmers and indigenous peoples, depleting soil and water resources and more. Given the critical need to preserve and restore ecosystems, burning plant material for fuel is best viewed as a pathway to disaster. While the “Smart Choices” report, like the Obama administration, claims that “advanced biofuels” and sustainability standards will resolve the problems, there is no way the earth can actually support a massive and ever-increasing new demand for plant biomass. Instead, a drastic reduction in society’s need for liquid fuels is an essential first step, through measures such as public transportation, energy efficiency, and reduction and relocalization of production and consumption.

The text of this, more critical, letter on agrofuels offers a glimpse at a far more realistic view of this issue than is offered by the Sierra Club/Worldwatch report:

As a diverse alliance of organizations concerned with climate change, agriculture and food policy, human rights and indigenous peoples rights and biodiversity protection, we (Global Justice Ecology Project, Institute for Social Ecology, Heartwood, Energy Justice Network, Grassroots International, Food First, Native Forest Council, Family Farm Defenders, ETC Group, Dogwood Alliance, Rainforest Action Network) issue this open letter in opposition to agrofuels (large scale industrial biofuels).

We strongly oppose the rapid and destructive expansion of agrofuels; the large-scale industrial production of transport fuels and other energy from plants (corn, sugar cane, oilseeds, trees, grasses, waste etc.). Agrofuels are a false solution and a dangerous distraction and they must be halted.

Agrofuels are a “false solution”.

Many prominent voices in the United States, including President-elect Obama, have voiced support for the large-scale production of agrofuels as a central strategy for solving the problems of energy supply and global warming. A growing body of scientific evidence, however, indicates that this is a tragic misconception and that continued pursuit of agrofuels will aggravate severely rather than resolve the multiple and dire consequences of the climate, energy, food, economic and ecological crises we face. Like other dirty and dangerous technologies and devices being promoted by industry to supposedly address climate change-including “clean coal,” carbon capture and storage [CCS], coal gasification, nuclear power, carbon offset markets, and ocean fertilization-agrofuels are a distracting “false solution” promoted for their potential to reap profits rather than their capacity to address problems effectively. [1]

Agrofuels worsen climate change and poverty.

A growing body of literature from all levels of society is revealing that, when all impacts are considered, agrofuels create more, not less, greenhouse gas emissions; deplete soil and water resources; drive destruction of forests and other biodiverse ecosystems; result in expanded use of genetically engineered crops, toxic pesticides, and herbicides; and consolidate corporate control over access to land. While claims are made that agrofuels will benefit the rural poor, in reality, indigenous and smallholder farmers are increasingly displaced. Industrial agriculture and the destruction of biodiversity, two leading causes of global warming, will be further facilitated by agrofuels. [2]

Next generation “cellulosic” fuels will not resolve the problems.

With recognition of the role of agrofuels in driving up food prices, there has been increasing attention to the social and ecological costs of corn and sugar cane derived ethanol. In response, there is now a massive push to develop non-food, so-called cellulosic fuels based on claims that these new feedstocks (grasses, trees, and “waste” products) will not compete with food production and can be grown on “idle and marginal” lands. The incoming Obama Administration is clearly positioning to advocate strongly on this platform. [3] Unfortunately, these claims do not hold up to scrutiny.

An enormous additional demand for trees, grasses and other plants, edible or inedible, will not avert the problem of land-use competition. Land that could be used for food crops or biodiversity conservation will be increasingly diverted into energy production. Demand for land for both agriculture and timber is already intense and escalating globally as water, soil and biodiversity dwindle and the climate becomes increasingly unstable. [4]

The scale of demand cannot be met sustainably.

Virtually all of the proposed cellulosic feedstocks (including dedicated energy crops such as perennial grasses and fast growing or genetically engineered trees, agricultural and forestry “wastes and residues”, municipal wastes etc.) present serious ecological concerns on the scale required to maintain biorefinery operations and significantly contribute to U.S. energy demands. Furthermore, renewable fuels targets in the U.S. mandate the use of 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol per year, an amount that requires one third of the nations corn crop, and an additional 21 billion gallons a year of “advanced” agrofuels, the definition of which opens the possibility that demand will be met with foreign sources. The massive new demand for agrofuels is escalating deforestation and resulting in conversion of biodiverse and carbon-rich native forests and grasslands into biologically barren and carbon-poor industrial tree plantations and other crop monocultures. [5]

Land use changes resulting from industrial agriculture, including widespread deforestation, are major causes of climate change. Recent research finds that old growth forests sequester far more carbon than was previously estimated, (i.e. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underestimated carbon stocks for temperate old growth forests by two-thirds). This means that deforestation has been a much larger causal factor in global warming than initially thought, and that intact natural forests are critical for sequestering carbon. It is imperative therefore that we protect remaining forests, grasslands and other carbon-rich ecosystems. [6]

The widespread application of biotechnology for agrofuel production, including genetically engineered (GE) feedstock crops such as GE grasses and GE trees, and plans to use synthetic biology and other genetic engineering techniques to alter and construct microbes, is an unacceptable and dangerous risk. [7]

Sustainability criteria cannot address the problems with agrofuels because they are incapable of addressing many complex and often indirect ecological and social impacts. Neither can they be implemented under globally diverse ecological, social and political situations. Similar efforts to develop criteria for soy, palm oil and timber, for example, have proven vastly inadequate. Finally, these efforts are based on the fundamental and flawed assumption that such massive demands can and should be met.

Agrofuels are not a renewable energy source.

While plants do re-grow, the soils, nutrients, minerals and water they require are in limited supply. The diverse and complex ecosystems that native plants belong to are also limited and not easily regenerated. Subsidies and incentives for renewable fuels should be focused on truly renewable options, like wind and solar energy. Instead, currently in the U.S. close to three-quarters of tax credits and two-thirds of federal subsidies for renewable energy are being wrongly invested in agrofuels. [8]

Agrofuels are a disaster for people.

As governments, investors and corporations recognize the increasing demand for and profitability of land for food, fiber and now energy, we are witnessing a veritable tidal wave of land grabbing on a global scale. This is disastrous for rural and indigenous peoples who are increasingly being evicted or displaced. If tariffs currently limiting international agrofuel trade are diminished or eliminated, social and ecological damages will escalate.

Social movements around the world, including the international peasant movement, Via Campesina, call for “food and energy sovereignty.” Via Campesina, along with the independent International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), a long-term independent assessment of agriculture involving over 400 scientists and diverse stakeholders, point to the key importance of a return to locally controlled, diverse, ecologically sensitive, and organic agriculture practices as vital to both addressing climate change and poverty. In demanding a halt to the insanity of agrofuel expansion, we stand in solidarity with peoples around the world who are resisting the loss and destruction of their lands, and with the wildlife and biodiversity being driven to extinction for corporate profit. [9]

Real solutions must be given a chance.

There are numerous better options for addressing climate change. These are generally proven, do not involve risky technologies, return control of resources to local inhabitants rather than profiting irresponsible corporations, and are more equitable. [10]

These include but are not limited to:

* A massive focus on improvements in energy efficiency, public transport and reduced levels of consumption within the United States (and other affluent countries);

* A rejection of industrial agribusiness and biotechnology and a return to locally adapted and community controlled diverse agricultural practices with the goal of feeding people, not automobiles, while conserving soil and water, maximizing carbon sequestration and protecting biodiversity;

* Repeal of the 36 billion gallon per year Renewable Fuel Standard biofuel target in the Energy Independence and Security Act.

* Support for indigenous land rights and community stewardship initiatives as the major focus of efforts to preserve biodiverse ecosystems and the implementation of free and prior informed consent from indigenous peoples with respect to projects proposed on their ancestral lands and territories.

* Reducing demand for forest products and aggressively protecting remaining native forests and grasslands;

* Rejection of coal and nuclear technologies, which are inherently toxic and dangerous;

* Scaling up of decentralized and unequivocally renewable and cleaner wind and solar energies;

* Leaving fossil fuels in the ground, where they cannot contribute to climate change;

* Rejection of ineffective market-based approaches that commodify the atmosphere, biodiversity, and humanity itself.

See the complete list of 40 organizations that have signed on to this letter, along with detailed notes and more than 30 supporting references at http://globaljusticeecology.org/connections.php?ID=244. To add your group’s signature to this letter, email your organization’s name, contact person and website address to contact@globaljusticeecology.org.

Rachel Smolker is an independent research scientist, based in Hinesburg, Vermont, and Brian Tokar is the director of the Institute for Social Ecology, based in Plainfield, Vermont. For more information on the Institute, go to social-ecology.org.


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