As the Guardian reports, scientists from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, writing in the magazine Science, explain how “first generation” biofuels, largely generated from food crops, could actually be causing more damage to the climate than the traditional fossil fuels they were designed to replace. These views add to similar concerns expressed by many others including the UN, OECD, numerous academics, environmental and developmental NGOs and an increasing number in the private sector. National Express, for example, recently suspended its trials of biodiesel, largely due to environmental concerns.
We are being sold a pup by governments and by the biofuels industry: a solution to climate change that actually risks making the problem worse. Tackling climate emissions from the transport sector needs to start with strict mandatory fuel efficiency measures. Biofuels could theoretically play a small role, if (and it’s a big if) there are strict sustainability criteria in place. But draining, clearing and burning of vast tracts of rainforest and peatlands to make way for crops for biofuels is madness. Further, using crops traditionally used for food to produce biofuels is hiking up food prices and creating yet more demand for agricultural land, leading to swathes of “cheap” rainforest being converted to farmland.
Take Indonesia. The country now holds the inauspicious world record for the fastest rate of forest destruction on the planet. This forest destruction is increasingly driven by our insatiable demand for palm oil, one of a number of crops being promoted to solve our fuel needs. In January last year, $12.4bn-worth of investment was announced for biofuel production in Indonesia, where there are already 6m hectares of oil palm plantations. Provincial governments are even more ambitious, planning for an additional 20m hectares of plantations, largely in the forested areas of Sumatra, Kalimantan and West Papua. Colossal quantities of greenhouse gases are being released as a direct result of forest clearance to make way for such plantations. This clearance is having a devastating impact on both forest dependent communities and the incredible biodiversity in the country.
We are already tied into mandatory EU targets for biofuels use. Consequently, in October last year, the UK government enacted the snappily-titled Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO).This piece of legislation means that, from this April, all fuel suppliers will be required to ensure that 2.5% of their sales in the UK come from biofuels – rising to 5% by 2010.
By the government’s own admission, there will be no mandatory minimum sustainability standards in place until 2011 at the earliest. This means that for at least the next three years, there will be no way of knowing if the fuel we’re putting in our cars was born in Borneo, elbowing out one of the last remaining rainforests on earth.
With climate change now readily acknowledged as the greatest threat facing the planet, it seems extraordinary that those in positions of political responsibility are ignoring the huge dangers inherent in biofuel production to sell a deeply flawed “drop in” solution to emissions from the transport sector. If demand for biofuels in the UK leads even indirectly to forest destruction, it will be an environmental scandal for which this government, which claims leadership on international action to protect rainforests, must be held to account.