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Industrial biofuels: a destructive energy source
Unlike traditional biofuels, such as dung and firewood that are usually locally sourced and used for heating and cooking, agrofuels are derived from large-scale industrial plantation agriculture and are blended with petrol and diesel primarily for use in motor vehicles. There are two types of agrofuel: bioethanol and biodiesel. Bioethanol is made from starch plants (e.g. maize, wheat and cassava) and sugar plants (e.g. sugar beet and sugar cane). Biodiesel can be made from palm oil, jatropha nut oil, coconut oil, soybean oil, and other vegetable oils.
A big increase in global agrofuel production is taking place in order to feed the growing demand for road and air transport fuel. In many places, demand for agrofuels is also being further stimulated by government interventions such as subsidies and targets. For example, the United States and the European Union have both enacted legislation requiring an increased share of liquid energy for transportation to be obtained from agrofuels. This projected demand is driving large-scale investment by private investors to acquire land throughout the global South for plantations to supply the agrofuels feedstocks.
The expansion of industrial agrofuels plantations is driving land grabbing across Africa, Asia and Latin America. Land grabbing occurs when land that was previously used by local communities is leased or sold to outside investors, including corporations and governments. Agrofuels are estimated to account for about 66 per cent of land grabs in Africa, and up to 44 per cent globallyv. Such land acquisitions often result from investments by foreign private investors, although sometimes from national private interests. They frequently end up in violent forced evictions of small-scale farmers, the enclosure of local water supplies, and increased malnutrition and hunger as local farmers are deprived of land on which to grow food for themselves and local markets.
Increased demand for agrofuels leads to deforestation and the clearing of land such as peatland and native grasslands, thereby removing important global carbon sinks. According to a report by the Oakland Institute, conversion of rainforests and native grasslands into fields to produce agrofuel crops will release 17 to 420 times more CO2 than the amount of greenhouse gas emissions that would be avoided, following the replacement of fossil fuels with agrofuels. The negative effects on biodiversity of industrial agrofuel plantations, also known as “green deserts”, are well documented. One 2008 study found that the conversion of primary rainforest to oil palm plantation resulted in the loss of more than 80 per cent of species.
Working conditions on agrofuels plantations are generally extremely poor, with frequent labour rights abuses and conditions sometimes akin to slavery. Furthermore, industrial agrofuels production very often competes with food production and drives up food prices. According to the UN’s High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition: When crops are used for biofuels, the first direct impact is to reduce food and feed availability. This induces an increase in prices and a reduction of food demand by the poor. They also argue that all crops compete for the same land or water, labour, capital, inputs and investment and there are no current magic non-food crops that can ensure more harmonious biofuel production on marginal lands. Therefore, non-food/feedcrops should be assessed with the same rigour as food/feedcrops for their direct and indirect food security impacts. In other words, second generation or so called “advanced biofuels“ derived from industrial biomass, woody crops, agricultural residues or waste are as threatening to food security as first generation agrofuels, as they will also compete with land and water for food production.
Many of the problems associated with industrial agrofuels production are also associated with the industrial production of biomass for energy. Industrial biomass tends to come from large-scale, intensively-managed monoculture plantations, mostly of fast-growing trees, known as industrial tree plantations (ITPs). The expansion of ITPs for biomass for energy is taking place mostly in the global South. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation, the area of “planted forests” in the South increased by more than 50 per cent between 1990 and 2010, from 95 million to 153 million hectares.
Industrial biomass can be worse than coal for the climate. A recent study shows that the use of whole trees in large-scale power generation from wood increases greenhouse gas emissions by at least 49 per cent compared to using coal over 40 years. The increased use of forestry residues from managed forests will also have a negative impact on the climate, as it depletes organic matter from the forest floor and the soil underneath the forest and therefore reduces the biosphere’s carbon stock.
The IEA predicts that consumption of biomass and agrofuels for power generation will grow four-fold by 2035xiv.