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E-M:/ biofuels wrecking the planet

We cannot grow our way out of this problem. What kind of world are we leaving to future generations?
Ted Schettler

A Lethal Solution

Posted March 27, 2007

We need a five-year freeze on biofuels, before they wreck the planet.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 27th March 2007.

It used to be a matter of good intentions gone awry. Now it is plain
fraud. The governments using biofuel to tackle global warming know
that it causes more harm than good. But they plough on regardless.

In theory, fuels made from plants can reduce the amount of carbon
dioxide emitted by cars and trucks. Plants absorb carbon as they grow
- it is released again when the fuel is burnt. By encouraging oil
companies to switch from fossil plants to living ones, governments on
both sides of the Atlantic claim to be "decarbonising" our transport

In the budget last week, Gordon Brown announced that he would extend
the tax rebate for biofuels until 2010. From next year all suppliers
in the UK will have to ensure that 2.5% of the fuel they sell is made
from plants - if not, they must pay a penalty of 15p a litre. The
obligation rises to 5% in 2010(1). By 2050, the government hopes that
33% of our fuel will come from crops(2). Last month George Bush
announced that he would quintuple the US target for biofuels(3): by
2017 they should be supplying 24% of the nation's transport fuel(4).

So what's wrong with these programmes? Only that they are a formula
for environmental and humanitarian disaster. In 2004 this column
warned that biofuels would set up a competition for food between cars
and people. The people would necessarily lose: those who can afford
drive are, by definition, richer than those who are in danger of
starvation. It would also lead to the destruction of rainforests and
other important habitats(5). I received more abuse than I've had for
any other column, except when I attacked the 9/11 conspiracists. I
told my claims were ridiculous, laughable, impossible. Well in one
respect I was wrong. I thought these effects wouldn't materialise for
many years. They are happening already.

Since the beginning of last year, the price of maize has doubled(6).
The price of wheat has also reached a 10-year high, while global
stockpiles of both grains have reached 25-year lows(7). Already there
have been food riots in Mexico and reports that the poor are feeling
the strain all over the world. The US department of agriculture warns
that "if we have a drought or a very poor harvest, we could see the
sort of volatility we saw in the 1970s, and if it does not happen
year, we are also forecasting lower stockpiles next year."(8)
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, the main
is the demand for ethanol: the alcohol used for motor fuel, which can
be made from both maize and wheat(9).

Farmers will respond to better prices by planting more, but it is not
clear that they can overtake the booming demand for biofuel. Even if
they do, they will catch up only by ploughing virgin habitat.

Already we know that biofuel is worse for the planet than petroleum.
The UN has just published a report suggesting that 98% of the natural
rainforest in Indonesia will be degraded or gone by 2022(10). Just
five years ago, the same agencies predicted that this wouldn't happen
until 2032. But they reckoned without the planting of palm oil to
into biodiesel for the European market. This is now the main cause of
deforestation there and it is likely soon to become responsible for
the extinction of the orang utan in the wild. But it gets worse. As
the forests are burnt, both the trees and the peat they sit on are
turned into carbon dioxide. A report by the Dutch consultancy Delft
Hydraulics shows that every tonne of palm oil results in 33 tonnes of
carbon dioxide emissions, or ten times as much as petroleum
produces(11). I feel I need to say that again. Biodiesel from palm
causes TEN TIMES as much climate change as ordinary diesel.

There are similar impacts all over the world. Sugarcane producers are
moving into rare scrubland habitats (the cerrado) in Brazil and soya
farmers are ripping up the Amazon rainforests. As President Bush has
just signed a biofuel agreement with President Lula, it's likely to
become a lot worse. Indigenous people in South America, Asia and
Africa are starting to complain about incursions onto their land by
fuel planters. A petition launched by a group called biofuelwatch,
begging western governments to stop, has been signed by campaigners
from 250 groups(12).

The British government is well aware that there's a problem. On his
blog last year the environment secretary David Miliband noted that
palm oil plantations "are destroying 0.7% of the Malaysian rain
each year, reducing a vital natural resource (and in the process,
destroying the natural habitat of the orang-utan). It is all
connected."(13) Unlike government policy.

The reason governments are so enthusiastic about biofuels is that
don't upset drivers. They appear to reduce the amount of carbon from
our cars, without requiring new taxes. It's an illusion sustained by
the fact that only the emissions produced at home count towards our
national total. The forest clearance in Malaysia doesn't increase our
official impact by a gram.

In February the European Commission was faced with a straight choice
between fuel efficiency and biofuels. It had intended to tell car
companies that the average carbon emission from new cars in 2012
be 120 grams per kilometre. After heavy lobbying by Angela Merkel on
behalf of her car manufacturers, it caved in and raised the limit to
130 grams. It announced that it would make up the shortfall by
increasing the contribution from biofuel(14).

The British government says it "will require transport fuel suppliers
to report on the carbon saving and sustainability of the biofuels
supply."(15) But it will not require them to do anything. It can't:
its consultants have already shown that if it tries to impose wider
environmental standards on biofuels, it will fall foul of world trade
rules(16). And even "sustainable" biofuels merely occupy the space
that other crops now fill, displacing them into new habitats. It
promises that one day there will be a "second generation" of
made from straw or grass or wood. But there are still major technical
obstacles(17). By the time the new fuels are ready, the damage will
have been done.

We need a moratorium on all targets and incentives for biofuels,
a second generation of fuels can be produced for less than it costs
make fuel from palm oil or sugarcane. Even then, the targets should
set low and increased only cautiously. I suggest a five-year freeze.

This would require a huge campaign, tougher than the one which helped
to win a five-year freeze on growing genetically modified crops in
UK. That was important - GM crops give big companies unprecedented
control over the foodchain. But most of their effects are indirect,
while the devastation caused by biofuel is immediate and already

This is why it will be harder to stop: encouraged by government
policy, vast investments are now being made by farmers and chemical
companies. Stopping them requires one heck of a battle. But it has to
be fought.

You can join the campaign at



1. HM Treasury, March 2007. Budget 2007, Chapter 7.

2. Department for Transport, 21st December 2005. Renewable Transport
Fuel Obligation (RTFO) feasibility report. Executive Summary.

abletr ansportfuelobliga3849?page=1

3. George W. Bush. 23rd January 2007. State of the Union Address.

4. The US Energy Information Administration gives US gasoline
consumption for October 2006 (the latest available date) at
287,857,000 barrels. If this month is typical, annual consumption
amounts to 3.45 billion barrels, or 145 billion gallons.

In the state of the union address, Bush proposed a mandatory annual
target of 35 billion gallons.

5. George Monbiot, 23rd November 2004. Feeding Cars, Not People. The

6. Nils Blythe, 23rd March 2007. Biofuel demand makes food expensive.
BBC Online.

7. Eoin Callan and Kevin Morrison, 5th March 2007. Food prices to
as biofuel demand keeps grains costly. Financial Times.

8. Keith Collins, chief economist, US Department of Agriculture.
Quoted by Eoin Callan and Kevin Morrison, 5th March 2007, ibid.

9. Food and Agriculture Organisation, December 2006. Food Outlook 2.

10. UNEP and UNESCO, February 2007. The Last Stand of the Orangutan.
State of Emergency: Illegal Logging, Fire and Palm Oil in Indonesia's
National Parks.

11. Wetlands International, 8th December 2006. Bio-fuel less
sustainable than realised


13. David Miliband, 14th July 2006. Malaysian Diary.

006/07 /14/1497.aspx

14. Commission Of The European Communities, 7th February 2007.
of the review of the Community Strategy to reduce CO2 emissions from
passenger cars and light-commercial vehicles. COM 19 final.

15. HM Treasury, ibid.

16. E4Tech, ECCM and Imperial College, London, June 2005. Feasibility
Study on Certification for a Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation.
Final Report.

17. Robert F. Service, et al, 16th March 2007. Cellulosic Ethanol:
Biofuel Researchers

Prepare to Reap a New Harvest. Science 315, 1488. DOI: