Roger James: How bio-fuels empty stomachs to fill up petrol tanks

Bio-fuels production is an ineffective response to climate change and a demonstrable cause of food price increases, while the competition for land and water resources undermines efforts for sustainable agriculture


Because plants take carbon from the atmosphere to grow, then release it when they burn, it was assumed that the greenhouse gas emissions from a fuel crop would pretty much balance themselves out.

But the reality is that the recent bio-fuel boom is emptying the stomachs of the poorest people in the world and, instead, filling up the fuel tanks of the rich.

Bio-fuels production is an ineffective response to climate change and a demonstrable cause of food price increases; the rush to seize land to grow bio-fuels is driving land grabs; while the competition for land and water resources presented by bio-fuels undermines efforts for sustainable agriculture.

There are many organisations campaigning around these concerns. Action Aid have a campaign and Oxfam has produced reports on the issue and  will continue to press for action, particularly on reform of the EU targets as part of its GROW campaign.

But what are bio-fuels and why have they become such a hot topic?

The recent bio-fuel boom has its roots in the 1990s, as growing public awareness of climate change and oil scarcity spurred interest in alternative fuels. However fuel from crops is not entirely new – the original Model T Ford was built to run on ethanol.

There are a number of types and biological sources and via different processes. So far, all of the liquid bio-fuels produced on a large scale have been so-called ‘first generation’  bio-ethanol  produced from crops like cereals, sugar beet and maize and  bio-diesel crops.

Bio-ethanol can be used as a petrol additive, or as a substitute. It is more commonly used as an additive as up to 5% can be used in petrol engines without any modification. Bio-diesel is a renewable fuel produced from the oil of crops including oilseed rape, sunflowers and soybeans, as well as from waste cooking oils.

But the carbon saving from bio-fuels doesn’t take account of all the chemical and energy inputs to the crop, the effects of deforestation and lost soil carbon. Once these things are included, the carbon savings from bio-fuels are small at best, and in many cases they are worse for the climate than fossil fuels.

As these figures were revealed by new research, along with the effect of bio-fuels on livelihoods and food supplies, environmentalists who had previously cautiously welcomed these fuels are now more cautious.  The dramatic increase in bio-fuels production in recent years represents a significant driver of land-use globally. The rush to seize land for bio-fuels production is being driven primarily by targets for  minimum bio-fuels content in gasoline and diesel, mandated by the US, EU and Canada.

Given the dwindling availability of arable land globally, producing bio-fuels often leads to the conversion of land previously used to produce crops for food – thereby effectively diverting food from stomachs to gas tanks. The knock-on effect is higher food prices due to reduced supply of food crops combined with increasing demand. And food price rises hit the poorest the hardest.

A report on Food Price Volatility and Agricultural Commodity Prices for the G20 in 2011 suggested that bio-fuels production could increase prices for wheat, coarse grains, oilseeds and vegetable oil by 8%, 13%, 7% and 35% respectively. The same report went so far as to propose that “G20 governments remove provisions of current national policies that subsidize (or mandate) bio-fuels production or consumption”.

A major factor in the growth of bio-fuels is government legislation, initially seeking  to use bio-fuels as a mitigating factor in climate change. The original European Commission Renewable Energy Directive (2009) states that renewable energy sources such as bio-fuels should account for a minimum of 10% of transport petrol and diesel by 2020.

The EU Renewable Energy Directive promotes the use of bio-fuels in transport by providing for a 10% target for renewable energy in transport by the year 2020 to be met by each Member State. EU policy in the field of bio-energy is currently most prominently driven by the provisions of the Renewable Energy Directive 2009/28/EC.  The UK Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (Amendment) Order (2009) required that 5% of total transport fuel should originate from renewable sources by 2013.

Forty-nine countries  (including the 27 members of the EU) now have a mandated ‘blending’ target – a pledge to mix a certain percentage of bio-fuel into their transport fuel supply, typically between 5% and 20%.

The EU’s target of making 10% of its vehicle transport ‘renewable’ by 2020 was supposed to drive the development of all kinds of new sustainable technology.  This market became to be seen as a profitable new income stream by big energy and agricultural companies, which had spotted the potential of bio-fuels.

We have experienced this locally as a big Bristol bio-fuel plant was given the go-ahead. These provisions are becoming more contentious. The European bio-fuels target  has been condemned by leading US scientists – the Union of Concerned Scientists warns that the EU view that bio-fuels are carbon neutral is “not supported by the science’”.

Most recently, the European Union’s climate commissioner, Connie Hildegard, warned about expanding the use of bio-fuels as the EU executive finalises an assessment of the potentially damaging effects they may have over the earth’s climate. Each Member State has a target calculated according to the share of energy from renewable sources in its gross final consumption for 2020. This target is in line with the overall ’20-20-20′ goal for the Community.

There is now a race to develop more efficient ways to process farm waste, grasses and algae into fuel. While they may not compete directly with food crops in the same way as first generation fuels, these ‘next gen’ energy sources all face similar problems and limits.  None are yet in full-scale development, and aren’t expected to be until at least 2020.

2012 offers an opportunity for action as the EU Commission is already beginning to consult on post-2020 renewable energy targets, including the 10% target for transport.

We have a voice in Europe  and there is new European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), which offers opportunities  for engagement. A  campaign to end bio-fuels mandates would have a wide-reaching positive impact on poor people and the environment.

Roger James is a campaigner for Oxfam South West in Bristol

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