December 12, 2008

This year has seen the biofuels industry taking something of a battering. If it wasn’t studies showing that biofuels as currently produced would actually raise carbon emissions (largely through deforestation), it was the swift and devastating development of a global food crisis that was widely linked to increased biofuel cultivation. Then, towards the end of the year, after all of that bad publicity, came the early stages of an economic calamity, bringing plummeting oil prices and suddenly putting the whole notion of biofuel for petrol substitution in doubt.

From ecocidal terrorists, to greedy genocidaires, to economic outcasts – our friends in the agrofuels industry (as it should properly be named) have been through the mangle in 2008.

As if all that wasn’t bad enough for the food to fuel lobby, this week it has also been awarded the “Worst EU Lobbying 2008” prize by a coalition of NGOs. Lobbyists for the industry have constantly claimed emissions savings that do not exist, and countered well founded evidence of their products’ damaging effects on societies and the environment.

It’s nice to see them getting some recognition. Take a bow Abengoa, from Spain, the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, and UNICA from Brazil.

But the major prize should be reserved for the EU Commission itself and the U.S. government, which are driving agrofuel production forwards, even as the industry suffers a temporary stutter.

November and December 2008 saw some major setbacks for proponents of agrofuels in Europe. In the last week of November, Ineos announced that it would be shelving plans for a massive refinery in the Scottish port of Grangemouth. That scuppered future output of around 1.2 million barrels of oil equivalent, all of it from food crops. Despite assistance from the Scottish government, Ineos just couldn’t make its sums add up. Public outcry mixed with lower oil prices meant that agrofuels were suddenly much less attractive as an investment.

In the same week, the German biodiesel firm Campa declared its second bankruptcy of the year. Campa, which is owned by U.S. based agro-giant Archer Daniels Midland, couldn’t make a dime by refining rapeseed oil into fuel, and ADM tucked it away into abeyance. Campa followed the U.S.’ largest agrofuel trading company, VeraSun Energy Corporation, which declared itself bankrupt in October.

Amidst gloom like this, what else would save the agrofuels lobby but big government? The truth is, absolutely no-one. The future growth of the agrofuels industry, and the future growth of fuel-drive deforestation and destruction of indigenous cultures, totally depends on the actions taken by a clutch of governments. Markets are failing to bring a seamless transition from dirty old fossil fuels to “renewable” fuels, as they fail in so many ways, meaning that the potentially catastrophic industry is being nurtured by public officials.

In the U.S., the Renewable Fuels Standard mandates that a certain amount of agrofuel should enter the U.S. economy, beginning with 9 billion gallons in 2009 and increasing steadily to 36 billion by 2022. Theooretically, the share from conventional agrofuels derived from corn starch, will peak at 15 billion gallons, and the rest will be supplied by new technologies, so-called “advanced biofuels.” These may include experimental techniques involving algae or bacteria. Such schemes are regularly reported on, but are totally experimental. They will, more likely, involve other crops such as palm oil, sugar – or waste biomass.

There is also a third category expected to play an important role, so-called “cellulosic biofuels.” President Bush mentioned switchgrass as a potential fuel many years ago in a State of the Union address. Companies are still trying to figure out how he meant that to be achieved, but eventually American cars will be fuelled partly from fermented grass.

As we saw this year, the modest increases in corn-based fuel propelled food prices to ruinous levels. Soon, however, the U.S. will be joined by the EU which has set a target of 10 percent of road fuels coming from biofuel sources by 2020. This target has been retained this week in Europe-wide negotiations, despite massive disquiet at the effects of agrofuel cultivation. Calls for limits on the percentage of EU fuel coming from food crops have been ignored. The only concession appears to be a promise from the European Commission to “report within two years on the impact on land use and sustainability of biofuels” – as the Guardian puts it.

A lot of carnage can be caused in two years. The earth’s forests don’t have two years to spare. A food crisis can spiral out of control in months, and the EU is not rushing massive quantities of aid money to set up early warning systems and famine relief mechanisms.

Both the U.S. and EU are committed to forcing consumers to use agrofuels, despite their manifest unpopularity and damaging effect on the environment. It’s grossly hypocritical of governments who now claim to take a global lead on dealing with climate change, while in truth, rich nations continue to deal with climate change and fossil fuel depletion only in ways which suit their economies and strategic interests.

Without a vibrant global activist movement that is committed to solving such problems fairly and sustainably, this will be a central theme of the twenty-first century – the shattering of hopes for global action on the shores of selfish, national (or regional) particularism. The good news is that there is a global campaign along just these lines – check out the Campaign Against Climate Change’s Global Climate Campaign for photos and accounts of this year’s Global Day of Action on December 6th. Around 80 nations participated in protests, meetings, workshops – all with the aim of bringing pressure to bear on national leaders.

But the campaign is small, relative to the forces that it confronts.

The EU, for example, is a massive bureaucracy, which speaks not just many languages, but also out of both sides of its mouth. On the one hand, it makes claims to support human rights and to protecting the environment. It’s a very useful forum for us to use to secure progressive measures which can have dramatic effects. On the other, as described above, it is committed to protecting and promoting European business, at the moment at the expense of social and environmental justice.

While European nations were negotiating on a climate change deal, EU trade negotiators were inking a deal with one of the world’s worst human rights abusers. On December 9, as IPS News’ David Cronin reports, the Commission approved the extension of trade preferences to Colombia, one of the most dangerous countries on earth in which to be a trade unionist and one in which landowners and paramilitaries use systematic brutality to remove indigenous and poor people from their land. That land then supplies crops for global markets, including palm oil, which is shipped to Europe (at a preferential rate, of course) to be processed into biofuels, soap, chocolate bars…

As Sue Branford of War on Want told Cronin, “I don’t think the EU and the U.S. in any way have put pressure on Colombia to adhere to minimal respect for human rights. It has never been subjected to the kind of scrutiny that the EU said it would subject it to.”

Francois Houtart of the Belgian NGO, Centre Tricontinental, told him that “Paramilitaries are killing peasants in Putumayo province in order to free up land for palm tree plantations.”

Think a little on that, Commissioners.  Your policies kill peasants, and consumers – so too will your fuel tanks.


2 Responses to “Vilefuels”

  1. If I might offer a point of clarification: ADM purchased from Campa the rapeseed crushing plant, not the biodiesel facility. The facility to which you refer was not purchased by ADM.

    David Weintraub
    Archer Daniels Midland Company

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