Booker on biofuels
Feb 22, 2012
Bishop Hill in Christopher Booker, Climate: other, Energy: biofuels, Ethics

Christopher Booker sends this excerpt from his splendid book, The Real Global Warming Disaster. It describes events in 2008 and ties in nicely with my Entrepreneur post a couple of days ago.

In startling contrast, however, one Commission proposal met with a storm of protest. This was its requirement that by 2020 10 percent of the EU’s transport should be powered by biofuels.  Over the previous two years a sea-change had been taking place in attitudes towards biofuels, not least among many of the organisations normally looked on as the EU’s closest environmental allies.

As early as 2006 various international organisation, including the IMF, the OECD and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) had already blamed rapidly rising world food prices on the ever-increasing areas of land across the world being switched from food production to growing crops for biofuels.  The FAO published a report suggesting that, for the EU to meet its 10 percent target from home-grown biofuels, would require a staggering 70 percent of the EU’s cereal land, necessitating a huge increase in EU food imports.  

By the end of 2006, the Commission itself was equally aware that the world was about to face a food shortage, which over the next few months would spark food riots in several countries, ranging from west Africa and Egypt to West Bengal. Yet, in their attempts to show that a sufficient acreage of farm land would be available to meet its planned new biofuels target, the Brussels officials resorted to a curious method which involved including the same areas of land more than once.

First the Commission counted in all the ‘set aside’ land taken out of food production to avoid building up grain mountains and other food surpluses. But much of this land was now being used to grow ‘industrial’ crops needed for other purposes. It then conceded, without being too specific, that in addition large areas of land would have to be switched from growing food to crops for biofuels. Finally, however, to meet the world food shortage, it then suggested that this same land could also be used to grow more food crops. This bureaucratic sleight of hand came to be compared to ‘Enron accounting’

Thanks to these efforts to make its policy seem plausible, the EU’s political leaders in  March 2007 nodded through the Commission’s 10 percent biofuels target apparently without questioning whether the sums added up. 

It was around this time, however, that, with startling speed, the backlash against biofuels suddenly erupted on all sides.  Even before the EU had adopted its new target, fierce criticism of biofuels was coming from those same environmental groups, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, which had once been their most fervent advocates. Their particular focus was the damage being done in the developing world, not least by the clearing for biofuels of millions of acres of rainforest in Brazil, Malaysia and Indonesia. It had become distressingly obvious that this was inflicting very serious damage both on locally indigenous peoples and on wildllfe, not least by its threat to the survival of Borneo’s fast-vanishig orang-outans.

Next to weigh in had been Jean Ziegler, the UN’s ‘special rapporteur on the right to food’, who in October 2007 made headlines across the world by claiming in New York that it was ‘a crime against humanity to divert arable land to the production of crops which are then burned for fuel’. Since the ‘dash for biofuels’, he said, could only bring ‘more hunger to the poor people of the world’, he called for a five year moratorium on their use.  A report to be published the following year by the World Bank’s chief economist Donald Mitchell would claim that switching food-growing land to biofuels had been responsible for three quarters of the 140 percent rise in world food prices which took place between 2002 and 2008.

Most alarming of all, however, was a succession of scientific studies showing that, far from helping to cut global CO2 emissions, biofuel production could often give off much more CO2 than it saved – not least by disturbing huge quantities of CO2 locked in the soil which, according to the University of Minnesota, could release ’17 to 420 times more CO2’ than would be saved by the biofuels.   A study by Cornell University showed that, thanks to the high-energy inputs needed to make biofuels from farm crops – in everything from machinery and fertilisers to the intensive use of irrigation – they took 29 percent more energy to produce than was generated by the biofuel itself.

In the week before the Commission published its proposals they were dealt a further devastating blow by its own in-house scientists. Its Joint Research Centre came out with a report dismissing almost every positive claim which had been made for biofuels.  The Commission’s proposals, it concluded, would not achieve any overall savings in CO2 emissions. Their energy efficiency was much less than half that of fuel from oil refineries. They would not on balance create any new jobs. And their costs would far outweigh any benefits, amounting by 2020 to a net deficit ranging between €33 and €65 billion.

Environmentalist groups, led by Greenpeace, queued up to implore the Commission to abandon its 10 percent target. A Friends of the Earth spokesman said ‘I just can’t see how the Commission can go ahead with its biofuels policy now …it has nothing going for it’. But in no way was Brussels to be deterred from pressing ahead with its policy. Biofuels, it insisted, had not been responsible for the rise in world food prices, which were due to rising world demand, bad weather and international speculation. ‘If you don’t have targets you don’t make progress’ said a Commission spokesman, adamant that the 10 percent biofuels target could not be altered.   

In the US, where the powerful farmers’ lobby was insistent that nothing should be done to change a subsidy system which, according to the FAO, could soon see nearly a third of US farmland diverted to biofuels, it seemed the ‘crime against humanity’ was equally set to continue.

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