Thursday, February 18, 2010

A surreal argument for biofuels

Could destroying the rainforests make good environmental sense?

This barmy idea is set out, albeit less explicitly, in a paper on biofuels under discussion by senior Brussels officials. Even though palm oil plantations are a major source of tropical deforestation – and hence a major contributor to climate change - the leaked paper suggests that such plantations can often be deemed as ecologically sustainable. And if that isn’t puzzling enough, it also indicates that forests that have been chopped down to make way for biofuel plantations can still be considered as forests.

Not since René Magritte completed the “This is not a pipe” painting has something as surreal been produced in the Belgian capital. Yet unlike Magritte’s work, this paper – known in Brussels parlance as a “communication” – could soon be taken literally across Europe. It is intended to guide EU governments as they formulate strategies on how to power one-tenth of all cars, vans and trucks with biofuels by 2020.

The paper has the distinct whiff of something that has been written in close cooperation with the biofuel industry.

In November last year, the Malaysia Palm Oil Council (MPOC) warned that its exports to the EU would drop as a result of new “sustainability criteria” stipulating that the use of biofuels should bring a net 35% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over conventional petrol or diesel. Malaysia’s palm oil producers have recruited the public relations firm GPlus to make its case for those criteria to be interpreted flexibly. The hiring was a shrewd one; GPlus is made up largely of ex-employees of the EU institutions, who get paid handsomely to fix appointments with their old workmates. GPlus was founded by Peter Guilford after his stint as a European commission spokesman; his current team includes erstwhile Labour MEPs David Bowe and Glyn Ford.

The MPOC has been found to have made misleading claims in the recent past. In 2008 Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority upheld a complaint against the MPOC over a publicity campaign broadcast on BBC World. According to the regulator, the MPOC’s ads gave a false impression that palm oil plantations hosted a comparable diversity of wildlife to native rainforests. The verdict appears to have made no impression on the European commission, however. Ten months later, its scientific research centre jointly organised a conference on biofuels with the MPOC in Kuala Lumpur.

Despite rolling out the red carpet for the biofuel industry, the commission has been less than transparent with green activists. Their requests for access to studies that the commission has requested on the impact of biofuel cultivation – particularly within the EU - have been turned down. A story in The International Herald Tribune this week might explain why; it quoted handwritten notes from a top-ranking farm official who indicated that concern over the environmental impact of biofuels could “kill” their development.

Meanwhile, a new study by ActionAid provides a sorely-needed reminder that the growth of biofuels does not only harm the endangered orangutans of south-east Asia. Rather, it predicts that the price of pumping cars full of crops that had been traditionally used to feed people – wheat, maize, sugar, palm oil and soy – will be a fresh upsurge in global hunger. The number of people suffering from hunger could grow from 1 billion today to 1.6 billion by 2020 if the biofuel craze continues.

Anyone feeling a sense of déjà-vu reading that warning can be forgiven. Less than two years ago, the World Food Programme found that Europe’s increased use of biofuels was at least partly to blame for the spike in food prices across many poor countries. José Manuel Barroso, the European commission chief, denied then that his support for biofuels could be responsible. Barroso is still in charge now and, by all indications, still in denial.

Originally published on The Guardian's website (

No comments:

Post a Comment