Our Renewable Energy and Travel Blog's Profile Picture

Our Renewable Energy and Travel Blog

Loading Map...

Biofuels/Agorfuels- Fuelling the World or Fooling the World?

Written on: Thursday December 20th, 2007

Just over a month ago, I (Michelle) sat through a presentation regarding the ?Myths of Agrofuels?. Most of the information was new to me, and I found the facts presented rather astonishing as I had always thought of agrofuels as a legitimate part of the transition mix. I felt compelled to research the topic thoroughly and draw up some conclusions of my own based on scientific research, reputable publications and responsible sources. I became so convinced that the use of imported fuel crops would have such major adverse consequences that I have since become involved with a network of organizations, scientists and individuals calling for a moratorium on the recently announced EU biofuel policy.

To summarize the issues, I believe that Agrofuels:

  • risk increasing greenhouse gas emissions leading to further global warming
  • greatly accelerate deforestation and loss of biodiversity
  • are a threat to communities and to indigenous peoples in developing countries due to land conflicts, food insecurity and will further exacerbate existing socioeconomic inequalities

The backbone to the anti-agrofuels network here in Europe is the UK organization, BiofuelWatch. The campaign is gaining momentum, public attention and recently, was covered by UK-based Sky News. The seven minute news broadcast is shown below, followed by a more detailed discussion of the broader impacts of agrofuel use and agrofuel government policy.

Before you watch the clip, note that although this blog is focused on the European government policy the Canadian government recently announced a regulation requiring 5% renewable content, such as ethanol, in Canadian gasoline by 2010. There are also plans to develop a biodiesel fuel target of 2% by 2012 and the Canadian Government?s ecoEnergy for biofuels initiative will invest up to $1.5 billion over 9 years to boost Canada?s production of biofuels.

This newscast looks at the agrofuel industry in Indonesia and the deforestation, loss of wildlife habitat and biodiversity that is currently occurring in the race to increase fuel crop production. As well, a villager whose village was demolished to make way for a large-scale agribusiness palm oil plantation is briefly interviewed.

Sky News (UK)- Biofuels, Driving a Catastrophy?

What Is The Difference Between Agrofuels and Biofuels?

Agrofuels / biofuels are biomass-derived fuels designed to replace petroleum and used mainly in the transport sector. Although the two terms are often used interchangeably a distinction must be made. An agrofuel, is a type of biofuel, consisting of crops and/or trees grown on a large scale (i.e monoculture). Examples include fuel crops such as maize, corn, oil palm, soya, sugar cane, sugar beet, oilseed rape, canola, jatropha, rice and wheat. The term agrofuels does not include biofuels derived from waste, such as biogas from manure or landfill, or waste vegetable oil.

The call for Moratorium does not include the use of locally and sustainably grown biofuels. It covers only large-scale monocultures (agrofuels) and especially imports of these fuel crops from the Global South into the EU.

What Is The European Biofuel Policy?

The European Union (EU) has a climate policy aimed at limiting global temperature changes to no more than 2C above pre-industrial levels. In March 2007 the European Union Heads of States approved a draft energy action plan with the objective of developing a sustainable integrated European climate and energy policy. The targets include a 10% minimum for the share of biofuels in the overall EU transport petrol and diesel consumption by 2020. Two important conditions were imposed onto this target: (1) biofuels should be produced sustainably, (2) ?Second-generation biofuels? should become commercially available.

The official legislative proposal for revised biofuels is expected to be published late 2007 or early 2008.

What Is Contributing to Climate Change?

The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, an independent review commissioned by the UK government and published in October 2006, is the largest and most widely known and quoted report of its kind. The review ultimately concludes that ignoring climate change will eventually damage economic growth and that strong, early action considerably outweighs the cost. Using scientific evidence, International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) guidelines, and the World Resources Climate Analysis Data, the review produced an interesting pie-chart showing the GHG emissions by source for the year 2000.

What this chart tells us:

  • 35% of emissions are from agriculture and changes in land use
  • Land-use change is the 2nd largest source of emissions (18%), after the power sector (24%).
  • Agriculture emissions are equal (14%) and land-use change emissions are greater (18%) than the contribution from transport.

Agriculture emissions due to intensive farming stem primarily from two sources: nitrogen fertilizer production/utilization and emissions of nitrous oxide (N2O) from the field. Because of the very powerful GHG effect of nitrous oxide (300 times that of CO2) even relatively small emissions can have a significant impact on the overall GHG balance.

Deforestation is the single largest source of land-use change emissions, i.e. the conversion of forest to pasture land. The carbon stored in vegetation and soil is released directly if the forest is burned (i.e. slash and burn) or more slowly if it is left to decay. Also, the re-absorption of CO2 (sequestration) through photosynthesis is reduced, leaving more CO2 to accumulate in the atmosphere. Greater than 90% of land-use change emissions originate from tropical (developing) countries. Of that ninety, thirty and twenty percent are attributed to deforestation in Indonesia and Brazil respectively.

Do Agrofuels Lower GHG Emissions?

It seems only logical that, if governments, supporters, agri-business and industry are supporting the widespread adoption then it must reduce overall GHG emissions and help the environment? right?

Well? it depends.

First, to truly compare the two fuel types, a full cycle environmental impact must be performed. In the case of transport fuels, this is also commonly referred to as a well-to-wheel (WTW) analysis, representing that the fuel source has been evaluated from its source (i.e. oil well) to the wheel, which would include everything from land preparation to fuel combustion.

Numerous WTW?s have been performed by scientific organizations and industry groups and have shown a wide range of GHG balances for agrofuels, from increases of 70% to decreases of 80% over conventional fossil fuels.

This wide range is because the calculated emissions crucially depend on a number of factors:

  • Nitrous Oxide Emissions: Farming contributes significantly to the agrofuel GHG emissions due to nitrogen fertilizer production/utilization and direct nitrous oxide emissions from the field. Factors such as yield, climate, soil type, ground cover and cultivation method assumptions have a very large affect on estimated emissions.
  • Base case assumptions: What was the original land-use? Did de-forestation occur to make room for the fuel crop?
  • Pathway: How was the fuel made? In the case of ethanol production, the use of co-generation with a gas-fired turbine over conventional production schemes has been claimed to reduce GHG emissions by 45%. However, using coal would wipe out the GHG savings as compared to gasoline.
  • By-product usage: Were the by-products of the distillation process used as animal feed or for fuel?

The lowest overall GHG emissions (up to 80% reduction over fossil fuels) are attainable when biodiesel is made from waste cooking oil or methane from liquid manure.

Nitrous Oxide Emissions- What?s the Big Deal?

To describe the exact methodology for estimating N2O emissions is somewhat complicated, outside of my own knowledge base (yuck, chemistry!) and likely more detailed than any of my readers care for. To describe it simplistically, biofuels studies have typically adopted two approaches for estimated N2O emissions from soils: (1) take actual field measurements, (2) use published IPCC guidelines.

The problem with actual field measurements is that the results from one field cannot necessarily apply elsewhere. N2O emissions will vary from field to field by more than two orders of magnitude depending on a complex combination of climate, soil composition, crop and farming practices. Studies have also shown that emission rates for tropical vs temperate soils can be between 10 and 100 times greater for the same quantity of fertilizer. Therefore, some substantial (and potentially unfair) assumptions must be made when using this method make a generalized comment that ?agrofuels have a lower GHG balance than fossil fuels?.

As for the 2006 IPCC guidelines, numerous other studies have pointed out the assumptions and simplifications made result in underestimating actual emissions. The most credible study is the recently published (August 2007) report by Paul Crutzen, who has a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on climate change. The study challenges that the nitrous oxide emissions from agrofuels is 3-5 times greater than recommended by the IPCC. Also, ?[T]he outcome is that the production of commonly used biofuels, such as biodiesel from rapeseed and bioethanol from corn (maize), can contribute as much or more to global warming by N2O emissions that cooling by fossil fuel savings.?

This is the key point: Agro-fuels will not bring about the intended climate benefits that are being used to promote them. This has largely to do with our large-scale, heavily fertilized, monoculture crops and industrialized production methods. And although I?m going to continue this article and point out many other legitimate reasons why the expansion of agrofuels is a bad idea, if you are tired of reading you can stop here- as I believe the case is strong enough already. In the event you are looking for more ammunition for the next debate on agrofuels you take part in, please read on.


How Do Base Case Assumptions Affect the GHG Balance?

As mentioned in a previous section, land-use change (i.e. deforestation) is a huge contributor to global warming, larger than even the entire transport industry, and second after the power industry. When performing an agrofuel LCA, how the land would have been used otherwise (i.e. base case) is important to consider.

To understand the likely scenario for the base-case land use, it is important to consider the magnitude of the demand. Renewable Energy targets are being announced by governments all over the world. On the Bioenergy Wiki, I found some information on renewable fuel targets for various countries:

Brazil: 20-25% ethanol, 5% biodiesel in 2010

China: 100% E10 (10% gasoline-ethanol blend) by 2012

India: 5% ethanol in certain states, 20% biodiesel by 2012

Thailand: 20% ethanol and biodiesel by 2012

The Philippines: 1% biodiesel by 2008 and 3% by 2010

The United States has numerous targets, including a 2010 target for 30% of transport fuel to come from ethanol, natural gas, hydrogen, electricity or other replacement fuels, and a 2017 target for 35 billion gallons of alternatives fuels.

Canadian government recently announced a regulation requiring 5% renewable content, such as ethanol, in Canadian gasoline by 2010. There are also plans to develop a biodiesel fuel target of 2% by 2012.

And of course, the EU draft energy action plan calls for a 10% share of biofuels in the overall EU transport petrol and diesel consumption by 2020.

I?m not even confident that this list is exhaustive or entirely up-to-date, but you can see already that the demand for biofuels is growing substantially worldwide. How much land will it take to supply all of the demand? How much will the transport sector continue to grow over the next 15 years? Will countries use domestic lands to produce their renewable fuels or will they import fuel crops?

Considering that we live in a global commodities market we know that a large portion of the fuel crops will be imported from the Global South, purely from an economics standpoint. The climatic advantages result in higher yields and almost all countries in the Global South have significantly lower labour and land costs. Demand will significantly increase pressure to convert land in developing countries to energy cropland.

Carbon is instantaneously released into the atmosphere when mature trees are cut down and burnt and it has been estimated that it would take 60 to 270 years of growing biofuels to offset this initial CO2 release. Therefore, to get a positive GHG balance for agrofuels one must assume that the biofuel crops came from ?set-aside? areas or unharvested grass. Is this a realistic assumption?

The two projected largest exporters of agro-fuel crops are Brazil and Indonesia. It is not a coincidence that these two countries also lead the world in tropical deforestation rates, as shown below.

Supporters of agrofuel policy claim that safeguards and certification schemes can be put in place to prevent the unsustainable harvesting of agrofuels. I?ll dispute this claim in an upcoming section.

One last point- Allowing natural vegetation to regenerate would sequester 20 tonnes of CO2/hectar/year. Should we be focusing on the supposed carbon mitigation by agrofuels or concentrating on simply saving and restoring forests?

Is It Fair To Exclude Social Impacts?

Although there are many, an exceptional document focusing on the social impacts of large scale agrofuel crops is called Biodiesel, Palm Oil and Afro-Columbian Communities. It is published by the Schumacher Institute for Sustainable Systems and focuses on the current palm oil production in Columbia and its impact on already marginalized communities. The author discusses how small scale farmers will not be able to compete with industry and agribusiness monocultures designed for export. Considering that approximately 80% of agricultural land in developing countries is owned by 3% of landowners, the most likely impact is to simply exacerbate the existing socioeconomic inequalities. To quote: ?Corporate actors have used their power, alongside the International Monetary Institutions, to create the best regulatory system for their investment, not for small scale farmers? and ?[p]olicy recommendations to encourage small scale production go against the financial interests of large economic actors?.

The author also recounts the story of an Afro-Columbian woman: ?In her village in El Choco, she had no need for employment, as she had access to the necessary resources. Her family shared a communal plot of land where they grew their food. When armed actors arrived in her village she and her husband and children were forced from their land. They now live in a slum of Bogot where they have no access to land on which to grow food on?.

This is not an isolated example. Any research to find social organizations in developing countries or even a quick Google search will bring up many reported stories of people losing their villages, land and homes to make way for agri-business and large monoculture crops in developing countries. The NGO Friends of the Earth Netherlands has published a report in July 2007 outlining the unethical, un-environmental, unfair and illegal practices of the largest palm oil trading company in the world.

Numerous other reports include a warning from the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues that five million indigenous people in West Kalimantan are threatened with losing their land due to agrofuel cropland expansion, and in Paraguay, 90,000 rural farmers have been pushed off their land by the expansion of soya crops.

To be fair I need to point out that the issues that I have discussed regarding agrofuel production in developing countries is not isolated. Truthfully, this is a problem that stems from our current political-economic system and industrial agriculture as a whole. These points can be used equally as ammunition against eating beef from Brazil or using palm oil products from Borneo (to quote a good friend :) ). Margarine, face creams, soap, chocolate, toothpaste, and many more products can contain palm oil from deforested land. However, the substantially increased land demand due to agrofuels use and forced agrofuel targets will severely exacerbate these existing issues. We need to oppose policy which blindly promotes the increased consumption of agrofuels without consideration of the maximum local and sustainable production amounts.

I?ve read a number of articles regarding the benefits for the poor and developing countries that an agrofuel industry would bring about. ?Promises and Challenges of Biofuels for the Poor in Developing Countries? by the International Food Policy Research Institute is one of them. The article points to income for poor farmers, employment opportunities for the poor, and discusses why they believe agrofuels will not increase food insecurity. But the author is counting on certification schemes and international safeguards to create a pro-poor biofuel industry. Also, the irony of ?creating employment opportunities for the poor?, is that before having been kicked off his land, the farmer did not need a job. He was able to provide for his family and live off his own crops. I do not believe that a pro-poor agrofuel industry is achievable with our current free-trade policies, the power and control of corporate agri-business and world trade organization barriers. How can we believe that the system can and will create fair and sustainable schemes when we already import so many unsustainable crops including soy and palm oil for food, massive amounts of soy protein for animal feed and other industrial products? Let?s not fool ourselves as our governments start talking about creating ?sustainable imported agrofuels?. This is a misnomer.

As for food security, I?m not going to say much, as this is already a highly debated and front-and-center argument. Unless you?ve not picked up a news paper or watched the news in the last year you should be well aware of the tortilla prices in Mexico, the price of beer in Germany, and so-on.

Lastly, a great discussion on ethanol, US security and policy was done by CBC reporter Avi Lewis in June 2007. He interviews and challenges an ex-CIA director who is now the co-chair of the Committee on the Present Danger. Watch him stump the ex-CIA director with his comments regarding US foreign policy (It?s great!). You can watch the 5 minute newscast here.

Will Second Generation Biofuels Save The Day?

The second criterion of the EU draft energy plan is that second generation biofuels become commercially available. Second generation biofuels aim to improve performance, usually using the whole plant therefore improving CO2 balance and costs. A wider range of feedstocks could theoretically be used including trees, plant waste, grass and straw. While the technology is currently unproven, promises about the future of the 2nd generation are being used to promote agrofuel policy and production of the 1st generation type. Development of economical net positive energy balance 2nd generation biofuels could take a significant time while emission reductions are required in the immediate future. Also, there is no evidence that large-scale 2nd generation agrofuels would be sustainable or climate-friendly.

Considerable resources are also being invested in genetically modified (GM) research for agrofuel production. For numerous reasons I fiercely oppose the use of GM crops, but here is not the place to go into a detailed debate. The Future of Food is a documentary, and one the many excellent resources discussing the sustainability issues inherent with GM crops. The Biotech industry hopes to use genetic engineering to improve agrofuel crops and obviously expects that strong public opposition, mostly related to health concerns and food crops, will fade. However, the risk for biodiversity, other biohazards and contamination for all non-GM crops still exist and will likely be significantly intensified if GM 2nd generation agrofuels are introduced.

Can These Issues Be Solved By Certification?

I?ve been primarily focused on European policy with the work I?ve been doing here at the Folkecenter and can?t comment on how the Canadian government is handling the certification issue. However, I suspect that the scheme eventually adopted by the European government will be imitated by other governments. Much of the information presented in this section is adapted from the Transnational Institute?s publication, Paving the Way for Agrofuels.

Proponents claim that certification can effectively ensure that only sustainable sources are imported. But who gets to determine what is sustainable? The agrofuels ?sustainability? debate in the EU and internationally excludes many actors, especially the farmers, villagers and communities in the Global South who are directly affected by the international biofuel policies and expansion of agrofuel crops in their home countries.

In the spring of 2007, the EU published and requested feedback on its Possible Way Forward consultation paper. Interestingly, only two sustainability criteria were suggested in this proposition: (i) GHG balance, (ii) high biodiversity value evaluations.

Based on these two criteria alone, agrofuels linked to land evictions, human rights abuses, loss of food security or any other social issue can still be considered ?sustainable?. Therefore, the issues most relevant to the most affected stakeholders are ignored. Currently proposed certification schemes cite the World Trade Organization (WTO) rules as a barrier to including social criteria such as child labour, soil degradation, land conflicts, etc, into the certification debate.

A ?Book & Claim? type system is being proposed as compared to a ?Track & Trace? method. This type of system uses trade-able certificates instead of tracking a product from beginning to end (i.e. Track & Trace). It is less administratively burdensome and hence cheaper, but also easier to cheat. Regardless of which system is used, there is always the challenge of verification, monitoring, and enforcement. Another barrier to the certification process is that the WTO mandates that voluntary certification is allowed, but only if no measures are taken to inhibit trade in non-certified goods.

The EU proposes to use existing ?stakeholder? groups including the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS) and the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) to both certify goods. However, these two groups are heavily dominated by transnational agri-business corporations, including Round-up-Ready soy producers who have a huge stake in getting genetically modified organisms (GMO?s) accepted under a ?responsible? certification scheme. Also, both organizations have been heavily criticized by NGO?s in the Global South as members have been found guilty of illegal acquisition of land, land-clearance through fire, deforestation and failure to protect biodiversity. Let us also remember that the wide scale conversion of natural habitat to monoculture can in no way be considered ?sustainable?. These groups are more interested in the long term sustainability of their industries and profits, and not sustainability in the sense of the environment.

What does the government of Malaysia have to say about the consultation paper? ?There is a need for EU to accept greenhouse gas savings provided by exporting countries and not to impose arbitrary standards including the need to verify the data (?) Protection of biodiversity is normally under the purview of national forest policies and should not be linked with agricultural policies (?) use of words such as ?environmentally-harmful? systems should be avoided as there are no internationally accepted standards (?) Criteria such as land-use change, biodiversity and CO2 neutrality should be subjected to the environmental laws and regulations of the exporting countries?. Yikes! Let?s hope that the EU is smart enough not to listen to this advice!

Certification schemes cannot easily nor in a practical sense address indirect and macro effects. However, these can be significant and could completely ruin the supposed GHG reduction and/or negate any environmental benefits. For instance, if corn crops for ethanol production displace soya crops, the soya crops (say, for animal feed) may be planted in a newly deforested area. The rate of Amazon deforestation has been shown to be in direct correlation with the world market price of soy and also linked to US corn subsidies as per a 2006 scientific study and an article published in the journal Science respectively. As well, according to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, an increase in the use of rapeseed oil for biodiesel increases the demand for palm oil in the food industry.

With all of these unaddressed key sustainability issues, how can targets be set and subsidies granted? This quote sums it all up well: ?? [B]iofuel mandates are targeting ambitious market shares without an in-depth understanding of a sustainable production level and from where these biofuels could be supplied. There is a serious risk that biofuel quotas for demand are higher then potential sustainable supply, creating a strong incentive to ?cheat? the system. (?) Though theoretically possible, reliance on certification schemes to ensure the sustainable production of biofuels is not a realistic safeguard.?

With all of these considerations in mind, I believe that trust in a certification scheme is like trusting that the stock tip that you received in your spam-mail will make you a millionaire.

Treating The Symptoms and Not The Disease?

Governments are excited about the notion that we can both grow our own fuel and combat climate change at the same time. They have chartered a course by providing economic incentives to industry and issuing biofuel targets for consumers. The ship is gaining momentum with strong support from industry, agribusiness, and investors although the climate benefits are seriously being challenged by scientists and numerous others warn of severe social consequences.

The realities of climate change and peak oil contrast with our eagerness to continually grow and increase consumption. We seem to be blind or unwilling to acknowledge the fact that we live in a finite world with a diminishing supply of non-renewable resources. Rather than making decisions to truly reduce our toll on the environment and our energy consumption we seek false ?lifeboats? such as agrofuels and expect this one lifeboat to carry all the passengers of the tanker ship.

Setting biofuel mandates (i.e. a requirement for 10% ethanol content by 2020) without first targeting consumption reduction is trying to treat the symptoms and not the disease! We need to first cure our wasteful and ignorant use of resources and then look to sustainable options. Trying to find sustainable ways to carry on our unsustainable lifestyle will only sink the ship.

Here is a clear example: In 2005, the most efficient car available in North America, the Honda Insight (70 mpg) was only sold to 700 customers. In contrast, 61,000 Hummers (10 mpg) were sold.

Is It Time For A Conclusion?

?When asked whether the 10 per cent target would be dropped or adjusted if negative impacts were demonstrated, the [EU] Commission responded that this would not be the case, since it would create too much uncertainty for investors. So, investors? interests are served while sustainability promises remain empty.? ? excerpt from Paving The Way For Agrofuels.

Based on the technical reports I have read, the internet research that I have completed, the people that I have spoken to, and the debates I have had, this is what I have come to fear: the agrofuel craze will only turn into a continuation of resource extraction from the Global South and developing countries with the intention of maximizing the profits of transnational corporations and corrupt governments so that those fortunate to be born in the first world can continue with their rampant consumption while falsely believing that they are actually doing something good for the planet and at the same time continuing to be completely oblivious of the upcoming energy crisis.


p.s. do me a favour- if you got to the end of this document, first pat yourself on the back, then leave me a comment. I?d love to hear your thoughts on this one- even if you disagree with me :)


From Dan Cloutier on Dec 21st, 2007

Awesome job! One always wishes there were easier more pleasant answers like the size of the globe could be increased to accomodate 6 or 9 billion people or magically we no longer need energy.

From Heather MacAulay on Jan 7th, 2008

Excellent writing! I too have become concerned about the biofuel balance - particularly the impact on the aquifers in the american mid-west. Have you considered compiling your blog postings into a book at some point? You certainly have a jump on an interesting volume.