Thursday, January 18, 2007

Guest Post by Almuth Ernsting: The Global Blueprint for A Biomass Economy


A year ago, my MEP sent me a curious statement which said that growing biofuels could not just reduce carbon emissions, but would actually cool the planet. I believed that he had been misinformed, perhaps by proponents of the biofuel industry. I was wrong. Those claims, improbable as they are, pervade top scientific institutions.1

First, let us think back to early in 2005, when catastrophic global warming hit the news as the biggest climate science conference opened in Exeter.2 Frightening evidence of climate change impacts and possible disastrous feedback mechanisms were published. Most studies presented forecast a decline in grain yields, an expansion of deserts and a shrinking of the arable and habitable parts of the planet even at levels of warming which are probably now inevitable. The collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice shelves, of the Amazon rainforest, and perhaps even of the Thermohaline ocean circulation were shown to be real risks if greenhouse gas levels could not be stabilised quickly.

Whilst the media widely reported on the scary findings presented by climate scientists, the second part of the conference had a much lower profile: Recommending pathways which would help to stabilise the climate. This is the remit of Working Group 3 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Perhaps the most important paper submitted in this context was Pascala and Socolow’s proposal for ‘stabilisation wedges’.3 Pascala and Socolow argue that we need to choose from a range of technologies which we must employ on a large-enough scale so that together they reduce emissions enough to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Whilst most people would agree with the approach in general, the choice of technologies and the claims made for them are more problematic: One of the ‘wedges’ consists of having two billion 60mpg cars running on 100% biofuels, produced by 250 million hectares of high-yield crops, equivalent to one-sixth of the world’s cropland. It is interesting to read the authors’ definition of ‘sustainable’ biofuels: “A sustainable biofuel is one obtained from plants that are replaced by new plants at the same rate as they are used”. That’s it.

Another ‘wedge’ consists of ending deforestation and reforesting 250 million hectares in the tropics or 400 million hectares in the temperate zones.4 How this is compatible with the land requirements for biofuels in a world of falling grain yields and shrinking arable land, I do not know.

Yet Pascala and Socolow did not actually suggest that biofuels would cool the planet. That idea came from two other contributors to the same conference, who appear to have a high profile within the IPCC Working Group 3: Peter Read and Jonathan Lermit. They believe that biofuels are carbon neutral because they only release the carbon which they take out of the atmosphere whilst they grow. If we burn them and capture and sequester that carbon in the process, then we will be extracting carbon from the atmosphere and, if we do it on a large-enough scale, we will be cooling the planet. A large-enough scale, according to Read and Lermit, means using 40% of all arable land for bioenergy crops. How can we squeeze so much more production out of the land? We do so by intensifying agriculture across the developing world, farming all of Africa as intensively as Holland is farmed5. The promised result? A world where “the More Gas You Guzzle the Greener You Are”.

Putting hundreds of millions of hectares of land under energy crop monocultures and intensifying agriculture across the developing world is quickly being endorsed as a model for saving us from catastrophic climate change. Detailed studies have been carried out for the IEA as to how this plan can be put into action. Perhaps the most important one is the ‘Quickscan of Global Bioenergy Potentials by 2050’6, published by the International Energy Authority. This provides a blueprint for increasing the global production of food, animal feeds and growing vast amounts of energy crops without increasing the global area under agriculture. Those ‘sustainable biofuels’ must be produced essentially by eliminating traditional grazing and pasture economies and low-intensive and subsistence farming across the global South, and particularly across Africa. It is up to national governments to decide whether rural communities should have a share of the profits.

Northern NGOs, governments and scientific advisers working hard to translate the global blue-print into feasibility studies and policies for the global South: Maps or countries and continents are divided into ‘zones’ of different monoculture plantations for which they are deemed to be ‘suitable’.7 Whilst ancient forests maybe spared on paper, grasslands and low-impact agriculture and vast numbers of species which depend on them are dispensable, sacrificed for the greater good of efficiency and fuel production. Experts have little regard for ‘social factors’ – such as the inconvenient fact of that land being home to millions of people. It is hardly surprising that many southern NGOs speak of colonialism: The maps bear an eerie resemblance to those drawn up in Europe during the ‘Scramble for Africa’ of the 1880s.

With scientific endorsement, support from governments, many NGOs and the UN, new partnerships are being formed between the biotech industry, oil companies and big agri-business. They are investing billions of dollars in the firm belief that their access to land and control of the supply chain are secure.

Those who defend the global bioenergy blueprint unfortunately ignore the nature of the ecological disaster now threatening human civilization, the reality of today’s world and, worst of all, the certain reality of tomorrow’s world.

Bad science?

All of the optimistic bioenergy scenarios assume that food production is not just secure but going to increase, without eating further into ancient forests and conservation areas. As Eduardo Pereira de Carvalho, president of Unica, the union of cane-growers in Sao Paulo states: “As for conflict between food and energy, the fantastic increase in productivity has made all these Malthusian arguments completely nonsense, and we have hundreds of millions of hectares of idle land”8. This optimism defies reality: Satellite images confirm advancing deserts across vast regions including north-central China (where two large deserts are about to merge and have already destroyed 24,000 villages in what was once fertile land), Kazakhstan (which has abandoned half its crop land since 1980 due to desertification), Afghanistan (where agriculture is being squeezed out by sand dunes and 100 villages have been lost), northern Africa (with Algeria now abandoning grain production in parts of the country), Mexico, and north-east Brazil.9 The biologically productive area of the planet is clearly shrinking, long before global warming inundates vast stretches of land. The Millennium Ecosystems Report, published in 2005 was compiled by thousands of scientists and concluded, amongst other things, that 60% of all ‘ecosystem services’ have been degraded, 25% of the land surface is cultivated, and species extinction rates are 100-1000 times above the background rate. It warned of an accelerating destruction of ecosystem services – even without fully taking climate change projections into account, nor without looking at a possible shift to large-scale biofuel monocultures. Global warming, more frequent and severe heat waves, droughts and floods are a certainty for the coming decades – yet the ‘Quickscan’ report 6 states that it works on the premise that the climate will not change. This should invalidate the entire report. The Hadley Centre, a leading British climate research institute, predict that, ‘business as usual’ will lead to half of the planet suffering from drought and one-third turning to desert in coming decades.10 Over the last three years, Europe’s per hectare rapeseed yields have been falling due to ‘extreme weather events’11. Global grain production has not reached the 2004 levels in either of the past two years, and world grain reserves are being drawn down as a result, raising the cost of staple food12. A 2006 study of 700 experts, published by the International Water Management Institute and backed by the United Nations found that one third of the world’s population are now affected by water scarcity. It predicted that, based on forecasts for population and food demand growth, water use would increase by 80% by 2050, and that growing biofuel crops will put further stress on ever scarcer water resources.13 On current and predicted climate trends, it is very difficult to see how people’s water needs can be met in future even without biofuels.

Claims about ever-rising yields and the availability of vast areas of agricultural land no longer needed for food production sound like wishful thinking rather than good science. If the blueprint can’t work without great harm in today’s world, it certanly won’t work in tomorrow’s world.

Surprisingly, I have been unable to find a single peer-reviewed paper which suggests that the main biofuel feedstocks – palm oil, soya, sugar cane and jatropha actually have lower life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels at all. There is simply no evidence to show that they are climate friendly. Lots of studies exist about emissions linked to biofuels produced in Europe and the United States: We know, for example, that biofuels from rapeseed oil and sugar beet are linked to lower emissions than diesel or petrol, provided that no new, natural land is put under the plough - but also that thy can only replace a fraction of our energy use. Germany uses 12% of its cultivated land for biofuel crops and can’t get beyond 2% of transport fuels without imports. So why is there no peer-reviewed evidence on whether the tropical crops so widely promoted for biofuels are actually good for the climate?14 Could it conceivably be because a truly independent study on their life-cycle emissions might demolish the case for using them once and for all?

At last, one study which looks at the overall emissions from biodiesel made from palm oil grown in South-east Asian peatlands will soon be published in a journal.15 This study uses very conservative figures: It counts emissions from peat drainage, but not from the vast annual fires set by plantation owners. From those conservative figures, it finds that a tonne of palm oil used for biodiesel from peatlands in that region is linked to the emission of 10-30 tonnes of CO2. This is 3.6 to 10.9 times as much CO2 as would be emitted from burning the same amount of diesel. This is the only independent study on life-cycle emissions for a tropical biofuel feedstock which I have ever seen.

The sustainability promise:

I have seen no scientific paper nor pro-large-scale biofuel institution which agrees with destroying rainforests to make way for energy crops – virtually all the organisations and papers which call for massive expansion of energy crops insist that this need not and must not happen. Yet, unfortunately, biofuels are being introduced into a world run largely on neo-liberal principles – or, to be more specific, within trade rules which have a strong bias against regulation and any ‘trade restrictions’ to protect the environment, the climate or communities. Where crops are grown is, by and large, determined by the market – not by scientists and NGOs drafting maps and plans. The market favours those biofuels which are cheapest. Generally that means those with the highest yields, which are tropical starchy and oily plants such as palm oil and sugar cane. Lower-yield crops can capture the market if costs are kept low and governments guarantee an unlimited supply of new land and perhaps even subsidies – soy biodiesel being a prime example. Rainforests, biodiversity, healthy soil and clean water and greenhouse gas emissions remain ‘externalities’ in the accounts, which will inevitably be sacrificed for real quick profits. Take the Indonesian example: Although sustainable oil palm monocultures may be an oxymoron, Indonesia could at least tell its plantations companies that they should plant on the 12 million hectares of rainforest land which they already clear-cut and then abandoned, rather than granting them ever more concessions for new forest land. But plantation companies make far more profits by selling timber than by growing palm oil alone – and they are powerful enough to stop policies which would cut into those profits.

So here is what we are witnessing just now:

Governments, institutions, NGOs and scientists are writing studies, many of them with dodgy claims, which show that biofuels could be grown without destroying any more rainforests, wetlands, peatlands, or biodiversity hotspots. As a result, new markets are created which dramatically up the world market prices of palm oil, soy and sugar cane. On the ground, plantation owners respond by growing more of those crops in the Amazon, in Uganda’s rainforests or in Colombia’s ancient forests and grasslands – unimpeded by regulations and unimpressed by those who tell them that they could be growing them somewhere else. Trade rules, meantime, do not allow for discrimination on goods because of the way they have been produced. Even if Europe might get away with a ban on deforestation diesel, they don’t even want to try. Instead, there is a growing push to use biofuel expansion as a tool for pushing through further trade liberalisation and further barriers to regulation and environmental safeguards in the World Trade Organisation.16

Meantime, companies, like Wilmar International, sign up to the principles of the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (perhaps safe in the knowledge that they won’t be translated into action probably for years to come), then apply to destroy one of Uganda’s largest rainforsests for a new oil palm plantation and still manage to get World Bank funding.17 In the absence of regulation, certification might at best tell consumers that the particular palm oil they are using comes from rainforest which was chopped down before 2005 whereas less scrupulous customers can get that from more recently destroyed forests. Yet, wherever the particular palm oil delivery came from, burning it will drive up the world market price and boost the profits of the worst and the less bad plantation owners alike.

Biofuels, not climate justice

One of Britain’s leading carbon capitalists and biofuel advocates is James Cameron, founder of Climate Change Capital. He is a long-standing opponent of equal rights to the atmosphere, and an influential supporter of the Kyoto Protocol and its inequitable carbon market. This is how he sets out his dire vision for Africa’s future: “The Africans are in a perilous position. They will not be rescued by 20 years of debate about C&C. Nor will they be rescued by the Carbon Market [or] beneficiaries of [it]. They’re going to have to really look to the possibilities that do exist in altering their economies to cope with very high fossil fuel prices and Climate Change at the same time . . . some combination of looking at land use and land use change issues; of coping more effectively with the water resources which are there; of growing biocrops; of ensuring that renewable energy technology is made available at low cost.”

This is a frank admission by one of the architects and profiteers of the carbon market. He continues to advocate an extension of the present-day unsuccessful and inequitable carbon trading, knowing full well that it will not save Africa from being devastated by climate change, and that the carbon trade will not benefit its people. It does, however, benefit him: Having helped to put the current emissions trading in place, he is now Chief Executive of a very successful merchant banking group which has just raised $380 million under Europe’s Emissions Trading Scheme, money which they will invest in ‘low carbon’ projects primarily in developing nations. Climate Change Capital will be speaking at the Bioenergy Europe Conference in February 2007, a conference which will outline “the latest EU legislation and incentive schemes that aim to produce a dramatic increase in the use of biomass and biofuels across the 25 member states.”18 Clearly, biofuels are a profitable investment opportunity. The above quote about Africa’s future was published by Aubrey Meyer, founder of the Global Commons Institute, who comments: “Cameron adds Africa to the growing pile of discards that the C3 scenario [i.e. the Kyoto Protocol] inevitably causes and the economics of genocide inevitably requires.”19

Where should we stand?

Many European environmentalists have had high hopes for sustainable local biomass from waste or community forestry. We can hold on to those ideals and many small co-operatives are trying to put them into practice. In poorer, low-energy societies, even a small amount bioenergy, from waste or intercropping, could make a real difference to people’s lives – provided that they are able to use it for their benefit, not export it to the richer nations.20

We must remember, though, that biomass from waste will only meet a tiny proportion of our energy demand – there is little chance of it having any measurable impact on our greenhouse gas emissions. Above all, we must remember that the EU Biofuel Directive, UN policies, bilateral biofuel agreements, etc. have nothing whatsoever to do with this ‘green’ idea. They are putting a global blueprint into action which is threatening local communities, biodiversity, water supplies, rainforest and the climate across the globe. If people think that they can sit at stakeholder forums and make this blueprint sustainable then they should take some time out for reading: I would recomment those papers listed above which set out the global biofuel vision, the Millennium Ecosystem Report, and some good summary of climate change impacts.

As one UN Agency, international institution and government after another adopts this global blueprint, or adjusts its policies accordingly, we need to study the plans, and unite for the rights of the hundreds of millions of people who live on land conveniently classed as ‘degraded wastelands’ which are up for grabs. We need to stop the web of biodiversity being destroyed by monocultures grown in the name of climate change mitigation. And we need to speak out against anybody, no matter their scientific degree or qualification, who claims that monocultures can stabilize the climate. There can be no sustainable energy system based on monocultures. Today’s bioenergy revolution is already destroying some of the planet’s vital climate sinks and threatens to greatly accelerate the pace of global warming. Accelerated global warming threatens all our future. We have the evidence. What we now need is a strong global opposition.

  1. See, for example, the editorial in Nature, one of the two most prestigious scientific journals, 7th December 2006
  4. To find out more about the reality of ‘reforestation’, see .
  7. For an example of a bioenergy ‘zoning’ map of Africa, see
  8. “Drink the best and drive the rest”, Nature, 7th December 2006
  14. There are studies which look the energy efficiency of tropical biofuels, particularly sugar cane, and there is information about carbon savings from fossil fuel replacement, but no full life-cycle study, which would need to include land-use change emissions.
  15. Please note that we have derived at the comparison with diesel by using conversion tables found here .
  18. (see events for details of the conference)
  20. see:

January 2007

Almuth Ernsting


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At 3:32 PM, Anonymous noiv said...

As long as people die caused by insufficient food, now one should use crop to fuel a car.

At 6:40 PM, Anonymous Patrick Mazza said...

These concerns cannot be dismissed. There is a real danger that adding fuel demands to the traditional food, feed and fiber products of agriculture will contribute to land conversion of tropical forests and grasslands. That is why World Wildlife Fund has helped form the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, and is also looking at soy issues in Brazil. Portland,Oregon, by the way, has excluded palm from its Renewable Fuel Standard. However, there is a larger contextual issue, and that is the world’s growing populations and demands for all kinds of products. For instance, soy growth in Brazil is strongly driven by Chinese food demands. Forest clearing in Southeast Asia is primarily driven by demand for tropical wood. In both cases natural oil production is a byproduct that can be devoted to fuels, but the forest clearing would happen anyway even if there were no fuel demand. Ernsting acknowledges this in a backhanded way when she says plantation companies make far more money off timber than oil. There are so many pressures on tropical lands that if other demands would have largely the same effect even if we somehow halted the growth of fuels feedstock production.

In addition, we need to look at the economic drive. The fact is that the North has largely agriculturalized its available lands in its efforts to grow its wealth and prosperity, and of course we’ve seen our own share of disasters as a result, as the weedy, eroded grazing lands of the US West, and the salinized irrigated lands of California and the Columbia Basin demonstrate. We are not exactly in a moral position to preach to the people of developing nations about how they need to preserve their lands in a lower productivity mode and accept the virtuous poverty that goes along with this. Ersting asserts that biofuels will essentially eliminate traditional grazing and subsistence economies across Africa, without substantiating it. But even if this were the case, should we seek to keep Africa in subsistence mode? The stream of Africans to cities away from lands that are in fact degraded under subsistence mode and can no longer support growing populations suggests that this is not a legitimate position. Instead of seeking to deny developing nations a new fuels market and revenues by “strong global opposition,” as Ernsting calls for, we need a strong global pro-position for sustainable agriculture and firm land use laws to preserve forest and other vital ecosystems. This, frankly, will require a flow of resources from North to South. We’ve wiped much of our biodiversity and gotten rich doing so and yet expect developing nations to hold back and stay poor. The latter, reflected by Ernsting, is all too typical rich Northern environmentalist position, and likely to get a big F-you from poor developing nations people. We need to take some of our accumulated wealth and use it to help developing nations avoid our mistakes and to develop sustainable agriculture and land use systems that also improve economics for people in those nations. The fact the global South has much greater solar gain says this is a logical place to grow biomass-energy-based economies.

Ernsting shows a bit of paranoid edge when she suggests independent studies on tropical crop lifecycles have not been done because they would demolish the case for biofuels, as if there has been an effort to actively suppress such work. The world is full of researchers, this is a somewhat new field, so studies are coming. And she may not even by right. The Worldwatch 2006 “Biofuels for Transportation” report, p17 of extended summary, does provide fossil energy balance figures for a series of crops. Biodiesel from palm oil, which has the highest per-acre productivity of any oil crop, shows a 9-1 energy gain, while ethanol from sugar cane shows an 8-1 gain. Not to outright defend these crops, but there are two sides to this. Palm, for example, is a perennial that minimizes land disturbance and a labor-intensive crop that puts a lot of people to work. The writer also seems to imply that WWF’s sustainable palm work is somehow corrupt and invalid. We’re talking about the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the world’s prime biodiversity NGO. If they’re corrupted we’re in real trouble. One indication of rigor in their process is that so far no palm has been certified as sustainable. Joining the roundtable and gaining certification are two different issues.

At 2:10 PM, Blogger Nina Holland, said...

Dear Patrick
I think first of all we should stop speaking of ‘dangers’ and ‘risks’, as we can be 100% that adding fuel demands to food, feed and industrial products of agriculture WILL increase pressure on land and water in many ways.
WWF’s initiated Round Tables are not primarily focused, however, on reducing production or demand, but on setting up a voluntary certification system for ‘sustainable’ or ‘responsible’ palmoil or soya. This approach has been severely criticised (talking about the Round Table on Responsible Soy now) since it is not perceived taking into account that the interests of the many people still trying to live off the land, are being threathened in their livelihoods by the same companies that the Round Table is negotiating with. Creating a ‘responsible’ soy supply does not prevent Cargill or Bunge to keep trading ‘irresponsibly’ grown products from elsewhere. The second Round Table held in Asuncion in August last year, was rejected by a united front of peasant and social movements, as well as most NGOs.
Unfortunately, I think it is too easy to say that ‘natural oil production is a by product that can be devoted to fuels’. At this moment, soy oil and palm oil have many uses, and not all crop remains, once squeezed of oil, are suitable animal feeds.
I agree we should fight all drivers of deforestation and threats to people’s livelihoods, including paper, animal feed, wood etc. But it does not help to then, before seriously addressing that, add another demand for agriculture crops for fuel, even if that were proven so beneficial for reducing GHG emissions, which I have learned many doubt. The
EU now does this by creating a ‘mandatory market’, of 10% of all transport fuels, to come from biofuels. So then, why does the EU not propose some mandatory targets for animal feed that has to be sourced from the EU, for less paper use, less cheap flights etc.? Of course, then the WTO comes in, the perfect excuse for not being ‘able’ to act.
I find your statement that since we have destroyed nature in the North, that ‘developing nations’ should not be urged to preserve their lands in ‘a lower productivity mode’, very disturbing. Lands that now produce food crops, and harbour some (agro)biodiversity, are not necessarily in a ‘lower productivity mode’, especially not when counting the much lesser inputs it often uses in terms of agrochemicals. On top of that, you should rather have a look at the poverty created by monoculture plantations, expelling people from the countryside, not creating any jobs, and only benefiting a few. Where do you think the people in the growing slums of Rio and Buenos Aires come from?
Also, the ‘high productivity mode’ of soy monocultures, because of its expansion, is now causing for example:
- severe droughts in South Brazil, causing low soy yields.
- increased land conflicts involving violent land evictions in Argentina, Paraguay, Brazil
- health crisis in communities surrounded by soy plantations because of agrochemical spraying especially the RoundUp package; therefore a ‘Stop Fumigating’ campaign was started in Argentina

At the last meeting of NGOs from Europe and Latin America on soy, it was stated over and over again by the LatinAmerican groups that the current demand of soy cannot be met sustainably, and that ‘biofuels will be a disaster’.

I am also wondering what ‘subsistence mode’ you are talking about that leaves lands degraded. Surely this is possible to happen, but absolutely not necessarily.
I agree there needs to be a flow of resources from North to South. But we owe them this, anyway, without forcing them to give up their last natural resources, with other disastrous consequences like increased food prices. But, we should take into account that there is a ‘North’ in the South, just like there is a ‘South’ in the North. The flow of resources coming from biofuels will not bring ‘rural development’ for people, since the flow of resources coming from soy for animal feed and food has not done so either.
We have not just ‘wiped out our biodiversity and got rich with it’; we have got rich wiping out people and plundering natural resources in the South, most of all! And now we are doing the same all over.
Nina Holland


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