Wednesday, March 25, 2009

oxfam praising biofuels

As I reported elsewhere, in January there was a high-level 'climate question time' in Leeds.

The non-party politician on the panel was Martin Kirk, Oxfam's Head of UK Campaigns. Whilst he was good on several points, he alarmed me considerably when he said

None of us foresaw the effects of first generation biofuels, but without them we wouldn’t be getting to second generation and that’s the right direction to go in.


The UK certainly could not be anything like self-sufficient in agrofuels. This means we’d be having cash-crop plantations abroad. This, alone, should make us wary of 'second generation' agrofuels. But there’s a lot more that should make us actively oppose them, much of it especially pertinent to Oxfam.

Agrofuels compete with food

The idea that because an agrofuel crop isn't a foodstuff it doesn't compete with food is simply wrong, and misunderstands why global food prices have risen.

It is not just about the staple food crops such as corn being diverted into fuel production. The best land goes to the best crops. In these terms, the best crops are not those that feed the most people nor those that are most sustainable, but those that are most profitable. As those who drive are richer than those who don't, agrofuels will take precedence over food production.

There is the idea that the agrofuel crop could be something not dependent on high quality soil, grown on ‘marginal land’. In reality, there is no such thing as marginal land. It is, at present, often used as pasture for livestock. So to convert it to agrofuels would displace food production on to virgin land. The only alternative is that virgin land is cleared directly for agrofuel plantations at great cost to biodiversity and the climate.

Either way, it means wild land goes under the plough. We know from first generation agrofuels what the impacts of forest clearance are. Food prices go up, forests come down, and carbon emissions are up to ten times worse than if we just continued burning oil. Second generation would be no different. There is no spare half-continent of land lying about for us to use.

The idea that there can be some sustainable agrofuel alternative to oil fundamentally misunderstands what oil is. It is millions of years of solar energy converted to biomass and concentrated. Even at its most efficient, annual agrofuel production cannot begin to compete. Taking a tiny percentage of our vehicle fuel from plants has already contributed to global food price rises and hunger. Moving further down that route would be catastrophic.

Using agricultural waste

The proposal is that second generation agrofuels can be made from agricultural waste.

If we are to move away from oil and gas-derived agrichemicals that cause huge emissions of nitrous oxide - a greenhouse gas 298 times more potent than carbon dioxide - we need to help people move to sustainable agricultural systems. There should be almost nothing we could call 'agricultural waste'.

Organic matter returned to the soil prevents erosion, improves soil structure and water retention and gives the next crop its nutrition. To earmark it all for agrofuel is to effectively mine the soil for our cars. That nutriment will need to be replaced. That means high-emitting agrichemicals, substances that poor farmers elsewhere in the world cannot afford, and even if they could the climate couldn’t take it.

They would not be carbon neutral

It is argued that second generation agrofuels will be carbon neutral, or at least carbon-negative (ie deliver more energy than they take to make).

We know that corn ethanol is carbon-positive. Sugar and palm are carbon-negative (if you ignore the considerable emissions from land clearance and soil degradation) because the tropical sun can invest so much energy into plants. Corn and oilseed rape are far poorer agrofuel crops because they are grown with less solar energy.

This means that for carbon-negative agrofuels, production would need to be focused on the tropical – poorer - nations. We’ll do more of what we've done for production of tea and coffee and other cash crops, on a colossal scale. Importing inappropriate farming methods, ruining soils and depleting water supplies for vast monocultures is something to be opposed rather than endorsed.

Also, much of the ‘agricultural waste’ is in the form of dry matter. Whilst things like wheat straw might make good biomass for burning, they are very poor for production of liquid fuel. It is far easier to convert fat-rich plants. This is part of the reason why corn is so carbon-intensive compared to palm oil.

For what genuine waste oil there is, we should convert it to biofuel. At present, all the waste vegetable oil in the UK would supply biodiesel for about three in every thousand cars. The other 997 have got to find some alternative.

That can only be agrofuels, electricity (requiring a huge investment in renewable generation if we’re to power our cars as well as the present grid), or decreasing the demand by using cars less (public transport and radical social reorganisation would help, but there is considerable hostility to any policy that confronts the car culture).

The one that causes the least problems for rich-nation governments is agrofuels. As the problems with them have become undeniable, they dangle the prospect of second generation agrofuels, using the flawed arguments I’ve mentioned above. As with carbon capture for coal, they offer a supposedly imminent technofix that may not work or even happen as an excuse to continue increasing emissions and avoiding tackling the root causes of climate change.

Second generation agrofuels would be comparably destructive to the climate, biodiversity and food security as first generation. Given the scale on which they’re planned, they would be more so. This is something that we should all be opposing rather than adovcating, especially organisations such as Oxfam whose concern is for the global poor.

1 comment:

Dunc said...

None of us foresaw the effects of first generation biofuels

That's not actually true - anybody who bothered to run the numbers and spend even a few minutes thinking about their ecological implications saw they were a bad idea.

In reality, there is no such thing as marginal land.

Hell yes. What's called "marginal land" is frequently landed used for non-economic (ie subsistence) agriculture. But hey, if it doesn't earn money, it doesn't count, right?

There should be almost nothing we could call 'agricultural waste'.

Double hell yes. What's called "agricultural waste" in the short-term is called "topsoil" in the long-term. I can't remember whether it was Kunstler himself or one of his commenters / correspondents, but the best summing-up I've seen is "We're going to mine the last 6 inches of topsoil in the Mid-West and put it in the gas tanks of our cars" (or words to that effect).