New palm oil plantation with forest it replaced in the background.
Over the last few years biofuels seem to have enchanted
governments, car manufacturers and many others who must cut
emissions to prevent dangerous climate change. US President Bush,
hardly a fan of climate solutions, suddenly started promoting
biofuels to make it appear he was taking action to cut emissions.
Car manufactures have seized on biofuels as the perfect
get-out-of-jail free card. Under pressure, especially in Europe, to
meet efficiency targets they have consistently missed for the last
8 years, the manufacturers lobby convinced EU politicians that
biofuels were the answer.
Many biofuels targets have been hastily proposed in the last two
years for political expediency or to deflect attention from the
efficiency targets car manufacturers fight tooth and nail against.
But behind the hype, evidence has been mounting that many biofuels
might even be worse than fossil fuels.
Put very simply biofuel problems fall in to 3 areas:
- Biofuels made from industrial food crops can produce more
emissions due to large fossil fuel use in their production.
- Biofuels from other crops such as palm oil are often grown on
land which has been cleared of tropical rainforest, generating huge
amounts of carbon emissions.
- Increasing demand for biofuels means land used for food
production is taken over driving up the price of basic foods.
We have been arguing for years that the environmental
credentials of biofuels are seriously suspect. As we pointed out in
Cooking the Climate' report into palm oil, a growing source of
biofuels, this is anything but a clean energy. We uncovered how the
production of palm oil is driving the destruction of Indonesia's
rainforest and as a result, C02 emissions are spiralling.
Despite these big issues biofuels seemed to be on a roll. The
Philippine government passed a new law forcing car owners to use a
certain amount of biofuel when they fill up their cars, whilst the
EU pledged that biofuels should make up 10 percent of transport
fuel by 2020. And other countries, like the UK, have fallen for
biofuels. The UK government are pushing through a law that will
demand all transport fuels contain 5 percent biofuel by 2010.
However recently there have been signs that the politicians who
first fell for biofuels might be belatedly realising they have made
a big mistake.
The EU Environment Commissioner, Stavros Dimas, has thrown the
EU's biofuel target into disarray when he stated that it would be
better to miss the EU target on biofuels than to trash the
environment and push more people into poverty. Speaking to the BBC,
admitted that - "we have seen that the environmental problems
caused by biofuels and also the social problems are bigger than we
thought they were. So we have to move very carefully". He went onto
claim that the problem would be solved when he unveils tougher
environmental and social standards next week. But the fact is
without really strong criteria the EU target is effectively
To top it all, the UK's leading scientific body, the Royal
Society, has released a report warning that biofuels risk failing
to deliver significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from
transport, and could even be environmentally damaging.
Is the tide turning?
These events signal that the tide is possibly turning against
biofuels and that politicians are just beginning to wake up to the
dangers of mass biofuel production.
If we are going to use biofuels, we need to make sure that they
are part of the solution, not contributing to the problem. That
means not tearing up the rainforests to make way for biofuel crops
just so that the car industry can continue to drag their feet on
the issue of improved fuel efficiency.
Real energy solution are clearly outlined in our
Energy [R]evolution report. Truly sustainable energy
technologies such as wind, solar and geothermal energy coupled with
massive energy efficiency increases can deliver climate friendly,
clean and secure energy. For transport there are significant
efficiency gains to be made before biofuels should be considered.
Governments would do better ensure cars are far more fuel
efficient than wasting time and resources on promoting false
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