Fossil fuels are killing our climate and we need to find alternatives. It’s a simple message that most people get, but what happens when one of the supposed alternatives also becomes not just a climate killer, but a driver of hunger? Then surely it’s time to stop and rethink?
Yesterday, the European Commission took a tentative step towards solving this problem by changing its previous policy of increasing biofuel use for cars and trucks by proposing to cap it at 5%.
So why the change of heart?
Because the EU has been forced to recognise that growing crops for biofuels means fewer crops available for food and likely price hikes as demand increases. The US, EU, China, India and Brazil all have set targets for a sharp increase in the use of biofuels. This resulted in huge additional demand for cereals, grains, sugar and oilseeds, further exacerbating recent increases in food prices compounded also by the impacts of the drought in the US last summer. Currently about 40% of US corn production is devoted to biofuels.
In a recent report, Oxfam concluded that the demand for biofuels has pushed millions of people to poverty through rising food prices. In 2008, when biofuels accounted for 3.5% of transport fuel in the EU, a study for the Commission estimated that 70,000 km² of land was needed to grow biofuel crops and that close to half of that area would be located outside of Europe. If this amount of land had been used to produce wheat and maize instead, it could have fed 127 million people for an entire year.
Increasing the price of food as well as reducing its availability should be enough reasons to suspend biofuel mandates. However, expanding biofuel production also has severe negative climate impacts as it often displaces crop production farther into threatened forests, savannahs and peatland or increases the use of oil-based fertilisers and pesticides. The destruction of ecosystems for biofuel crop production leads to massive greenhouse gas emissions as intact ecosystems are natural carbon sinks.
Nevertheless, the Commission proposal does not go far enough. It does not require governments or fuel suppliers to account for indirect emissions from biofuels. EU countries can still continue to use biofuels that have higher emissions than crude oil.
In the coming months, the European Parliament and the Council will negotiate towards a final adoption of EU biofuels policy. They should amend the Commission proposal to properly account for the full climate change impact of biofuels.
Used wisely, biofuels can be part of the solutions needed for a fossil fuel-free future. But if current biofuels policy increases food prices, while making climate change worse through additional deforestation and unsustainable farming practices, then the system isn’t working and has to change.
Sini Harkki is a campaigner with Greenpeace Nordic