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Biofuels, Source of Land and Water Grabbing

Are biofuels an excellent example of a big policy flop? Fritz Holzwarth, deputy director-general at Germany’s Federal Environment Ministry, says yes.

“The biofuel hype – and I am calling it a hype – was generated through climate change mitigation and CO2 reduction,” he said.

According to Holzwarth, one standard does not fit all in the global context because although in some parts of the world a sustainable bio-crop economy is developing, in others only market incentives exist and sustainable bio-energy doesn’t get enough attention.  

In the EU, there’s much confusion regarding policy on biofuels. After more than a year of fighting on the Fuel Quality Directive within the European Commission, the 27 participating commissioners failed to endorse any of the three main policy options. Rumours in Brussels’ corridors have it that discussions will continue in an attempt to reach an agreement by the end of this year.

In recent months, drought-stricken crops and record-high grain prices have braced critics of the EU biofuel industry. Having always claimed that biofuels do not ultimately reduce carbon dioxide emissions, they now also fear a food crisis.

Shai Hills, Resource Reserve, Greater Accra Region. © Elena Craescu.

“The good news is that there appears to be a consensus in the Commission that the indirect impacts of biofuels need to be taken seriously,” said Nusa Urbancic, a Brussels-based campaigner for green transport advocacy T&E (Transport & Environment).

The debate is still centered on indirect land use change (ILUC). When referring to the reduction of carbon emissions with biofuels, Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for the Environment, showed implicit skepticism:

In short, ILUC is an argument which states that by diverting food-crops into fuel, biofuel production increases overall global demand for agricultural land. If farmers meet that extra demand by cutting down forests and draining peat land, it results in adding up millions of tons of carbon emissions.

In this sense, groups pressure for the ILUC conversion factor to be taken into account when computing CO2 emissions. – Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for the Environment

Statements such as the one by Germany’s Holzwarth are part of the unwanted truth in the ILUC debate.

The land use change vocabulary is a vocabulary that is hiding processes behind; you have in big parts of Africa the land grabbing issue. And in essence, land grabbing is water grabbing because land without water has no value.

Climate change mitigation is an absolutely necessary issue to deal with, but we should be clear that we must avoid such unintended consequences that we are facing now in other parts of the world when it comes to bio-energy. – Fritz Holzwarth, deputy director-general at Germany’s Federal Ministry for the Environment

“We do see a role for biofuels in climate change mitigation,” said Maurits van den Berg, an agricultural policy researcher at the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. “From a social perspective they were associated with land grabbing, but they also create work and business opportunities in agriculture.” In short, there is no simple answer: “It depends on how it’s managed.”

Being a largely water-intensive crop, biofuels can’t be produced in arid regions. “In more humid regions you can have higher yields,” Van den Berg said. “In any case, irrigation of biofuels is not a good idea.”

The industry can also create jobs, according to Valerie Ndaruzaniye, president of the Global Water Institute. “In West-Saharan areas you can use dry lands for energy crops – nothing else can grow there,” she said. “Now we’re talking about privatisation of water: if these people have an income, they will have more money to buy water in order to sustain their environment.”

Valerie Ndaruzaniye, president of Global Water Institute. Photo: Raul Cazan, 2Celsius Network.

Experts point to a plant that doesn’t require such high amounts of water: jatropha. The problem with it, though, is that while some love it, others hate it.

Criticism ranges from considering its seeds to be highly toxic – Australia recently banned some of its subspecies – to it bringing very low yields. Nonetheless, the plant is being successfully cultivated in northern Brazil, Indonesia, India, and Mali.

Michael Scoullos, chair of the Mediterranean Region at Global Water Partnership, says there is a major carbon accounting flaw in EU legislation: biofuels used in transport and biomass used for power generation are currently counted as “zero emissions” , which will have “immense” consequences for the environment. This is the key finding of a report published by the Scientific Committee of the European Environment Agency, a top EU advisory body.

The report warns that counting biofuels and biomass as “zero emissions” is wrong because it ignores the emissions that come when the fuels are burned, assuming that this impact is automatically offset when new plants grow. In many cases, these emissions will not be offset because increased demand for land for bioenergy will displace emissions elsewhere.

Our organization is very much concerned about land grabbing and water grabbing and short and even medium term solutions may backfire at us. We do not exclude altogether biofuel from the menu, but it is the least attractive option vis-à-vis other options that can be used in mitigating climate change. – Michael Scoullos, Mediterranean Region at Global Water Partnership

ILUC Dilemma. Some Theory

The problem of causality: Bioenergy is not the only driver of ILUC-related loss of carbon stocks and biodiversity. Others include the change in demand for agricultural products, population growth and economic development. In that context, the problem of causation of damages from multiple sources remains largely unsolved.

The problem of measuring: The proportion of land use changes caused by the expansion of food, feed, fiber, and fuel production is not clear, as well as the share of increased demand that is met by increased land area instead of increased yield. No data are available on the role of co-products in ILUC, both from bioenergy chains and land use change-derived scenarios.

The dilemma: Neglecting the existing ILUC effects or taking them into account despite no consistent methodologies being available?

A conclusion instead

Biofuels require land. Land requires nutrients and water. If biofuels replace something else, be it crops or natural vegetation, this fact has to be taken into account. Growing biofuels on marginal lands or deserts is not a serious agricultural solution.

“Very often, […] biofuels come at a carbon cost greater than the fossil fuels they seems rather obvious,” writes Fred Pearce in The Landgrabbers: The New Fight over Who Owns the Planet. “Regulators I have spoken to say they have left the land bit out because it is too hard to calculate. Quite so. But until this carbon accounting error is fixed, regulators often simply don’t know if, or when, biofuels are worth it.”

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About The Author(s)

Raul Cazan

Raul Cazan

Environmental Journalist

For two years, Raul was the Editor-in-Chief of the only Romanian environmental magazine, Green Report, a product among few of the kind in Eastern Europe. Beyond his Law degree from the University of Bucharest, Raul’s interests revolve around environmental journalism and communications, enhancing topics surrounding the politics of climate change and food security. Raul holds two Master’s Degrees in political science and development from the Central European University Budapest and University of Trento, Italy. He collaborated with the World Wildlife Fund – Danube Carpathian Program, founded the Slow Food Bucharest chapter and acted as an environmental law consultant in Brussels. In 2009 and 2010 he was International Grassroots Outreach Fellow at Earth Day Network in Washington, D.C. His latest project consists of setting-up a similar open virtual platform, named, regarding climate change and the green collar economy in Central and Eastern Europe. His big passion is cycling, thus he is making it a socially valued activity by promoting and carrying out “bike charity” projects such as RideAcross. Currently, as president of Association 2Celsius, he is working on media development, institutional greening projects as well as on land use change related programs.

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