Warnings that switching to biofuels as a ‘clean’ energy source could threaten food security and increase deforestation have become increasingly stark this week.
A UN report, released last Monday concluded that, despite offering considerable benefits such as clean energy for millions and the creation of wealth and jobs in poorer countries, biofuel production also has the ability to cause real destruction.
The report warned that increasing production of liquid biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, could increase the price of agricultural commodities with negative economic and social impacts, especially for the world’s poor who spend a large proportion of income on food. It also raised the issue that, where forests are cleared to make way for energy crops, GHG emissions may actually be higher overall from biofuels than from fossil fuels. The report states:
Unless new policies are enacted to protect threatened lands, secure socially acceptable land use, and steer bioenergy development in a sustainable direction overall, the environment and social damage could in some cases outweigh the benefits
Today, BBC News reports on new study by the UK based Co-op Insurance Society that reiterates some of these concerns. The CIS report warns of the potentially severe environmental impacts of increased biofuel production. According to the BBC, the study found that as much as nine per cent of the world’s agricultural land could be needed to replace just 10% of the world’s transport fuels. The land needed for energy crops could encroach on what little land is available for food in countries threatened by famine.
Though not the first time these concerns have been raised, the reports, in particular the UN study, represent significant efforts to investigate the pros and cons of bioenergy production. For previous discussions of these issues, see George Monbiot’s series of articles on the ills of biofuels, in particular his recent piece in The Guardian in which he argues that we need a five year freeze on biofuels if we are to save the planet
The recent boom in the bioenergy sector looks set to continue. Worldwide biofuel production fdoubled in the last five years and will double again in the next four years, says the UN report. The latest IPCC Working Group III SPM, projects that biofuel use for transport will grow to 3% of total transport energy by 2030. Growth could reach up to 5-10% of total transport energy, depending on future oil and carbon prices, improvements in car efficiency and technological advances.
In the meantime, the EU and the UK have set a target of 10% of all car fuel to come from biodiesels by 2010. At the start of the year, the EC made proposals for a new EU-wide energy policy, which includes a binding target of 10% of biofuels in petrol and diesel in all member states. The public consultation on how this could be achieved – and sustainably – is open until June 4.