The dark side of biofuels

As the world seeks alternatives to fossil fuels (petrol, oil, diesel) that have caused climate change, the focus is gradually shifting to biofuels that are believed to be efficient and friendly to the environment. Biofuels are being billed as the “best replacement of fossil fuels” in the efforts by industrialised countries to cut down emissions and reduce the impacts of climate change. Obviously, by cultivating these oil plants, one would imagine that there would be an opportunity for rural communities to improve their livelihoods while at the same time contributing to the efforts to combat climate change.

However, alarm bells have been rung in regions that have developed biofuel industries; that just as the discovery of fossil fuel in Niger Delta, Nigeria, and elsewhere in Africa brought a ‘curse’, the biofuel or agro-fuel industry could be even a worse curse in places where it has gained foothold. From sugarcane plantations in Brazil to Indonesia’s palm plantations, the reality is that biofuel industry, without strict regulation, can be as catastrophic as the fossil fuel industry is in Africa.

While local production on a small scale of biofuels, like ethanol, can contribute to local energy sovereignty, the international market can completely destroy the opportunities for sustainable production. As millions of acres worldwide are converted to corn, Jatropha, palm oil, soy, etc, it is becoming clear that we could be making climate change even worse, driving more species into extinction, and at the same time, threatening food production in developing countries.

The new biofuel revolution being subsidised by rich countries, led by the United States of America and the European Union could be buoyed by inability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions domestically as well as increased prices of crude oil. The question in the lips of many, however, is whether biofuels will help solve global energy crisis and reduce climate change at the same time. A number of NGOs have urged African delegates to the Climate Change Convention, where the issue of biofuels is increasingly gaining currency, to be cautious of biofuels as possible ways to achieve fast growth or more efficient fuel conversion under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). Biofuels, they argue, may exacerbate the problems of social inequality and poverty, particularly in Africa, as well as climate change, including environmental degradation.

While African countries are beginning to explore the possibilities of farming biofuel crops for local household and domestic grid energy use, the consequences of growing biofuel for export to the wealthy countries so that they may maintain their energy intensive lifestyles, instead of growing food for consumption by Africans could be severe. Using potential agricultural land and later to grow biofuels instead of food for domestic consumption will have a detrimental effect on food security in the continent that is already struggling to feed its more than 800 million inhabitants.

To demonstrate that biofuels offer very little carbon saving and low energy saving, studies in the US found that the amount of fossil fuel energy required to produce and process biofuel crops such as Soya and maize (fertilizer, farm machinery, processing and transport) is almost as much as the amount of energy contained in the fuel produced. In addition, the studies show, the amount of grain required for one tank of bioethanol in a 4×4 SUV vehicle would feed one person for one year. Biofuels will open up commodity markets to increased speculation. In 2006, an increase in the use of grain worldwide for conversion to biofuels led to a 60% increase in global grain prices and speculator interest in what had previously been a stably priced commodity. After environmental activists successfully stopped Ugandan government from allocating thousands of acres of Mabira forest to a private developer who had an intention of establishing sugar
plantations, large areas of tropical forest in Kangala islands are being converted into BIDCO palm plantations, which will be used to produce biodiesel. BIDCO is currently lobbying the government of Uganda to be able to further expand their plantations into other forested areas.

Large-scale production of biofuels, certainly, will cause serious environmental challenges for the entire planet, starting with the clearance of forested land for plantations.

But, even more serious, will be converting pastoralist lands for biofuel production. Pastoralist communities need those vast lands for cultural survival. Though poor countries in Africa could benefit from using their biofuels more efficiently without destroying their ecosystem, a global biofuel regulatory system should be put in place first. And to protect vulnerable communities in the developing countries from the predatory and profit-driven multinational companies that are likely to invade new business opportunities in the biofuel industry, mandatory regulatory schemes and standards should be put in place without further delay. Such regulations should be based on objective scientific assessment, which looks at impacts on local communities, food security, soils, water and animals.

Author: Grace Akumu (Ms)

Executive Director

Climate Network Africa


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1 Response to The dark side of biofuels

  1. Chris Wojnarowski says:

    A case in point – The South American experience with the replacement of rain forest with cash crop farming on an industrial scale has been soil depletion leading to progressively diminished crops and lack of sustainability. I recall Daniel Ludwig attempted to grow a strain of fast growing trees in Brasil for pulping. His 4 million acre Jari Project in the Amazon basin in the 1960’s stumbled badly for this reason.
    I concur with the view there is just not enough conventional biomass / biomass potential on this planet to use sustainably as a principal fuel source.

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