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Climate change

Biofuel policy is feeding cars but starving people

by Éamonn Meehan, Executive Director
If a policy was enacted that not only failed to achieve its intended results but actually managed to significantly worsen the situation, plunging millions of people into further poverty along the way, it would be considered an act of reckless mismanagement to continue with it. 
Yet, this is the situation Ireland and the EU finds itself in. Fully aware that European biofuel targets are leading to increased hunger and land grabs in the developing world, European Energy Ministers, including Minister Pat Rabbitte, on Thursday (12 December) failed to address this disastrous policy.
The promotion of biofuels was heralded as an eco-friendly alternative to fossil fuels. Substituting petrol and diesel for crop-based fuels would make a significant impact in the fight against climate change, we were told.
The EU embraced biofuels to such a degree that in 2009 it was agreed that 10 per cent of transport fuel would be derived from renewable sources, mostly biofuels, by 2020. To encourage this transformation, generous tax breaks were offered to the industry.
However, the EU has no way to meet its own targets without outsourcing biofuel production to the developing world. In other words, transport fuel targets can be met only by using land in poorer countries to grow crops for export. Anything between 4.7 and 7.9 million hectares of new land – an area roughly the size of Ireland – needs to be handed over to biofuel growth in order to meet EU demand.
Four years on, the true impact of biofuels is clear to all. By incentivising land owners to replace food crops with fuel crops, the EU’s quota has reduced food production in areas of the world where poor communities were already at risk of hunger. Food prices have rocketed, land grabs are on the rise, and hunger has worsened in areas of the developing world as agricultural land is used to fuel European cars instead of people.
As well as increasing hunger, the current policy on biofuels will lead to higher rather than lower greenhouse emissions.  Biofuel growth leads to deforestation and when these ‘indirect land use’ changes are taken into account, they lead to no real carbon emission savings. Biofuels also require an extraordinary amount of water: roughly 2,500 litres of water is used to produce just one litre of biofuels.
While the biofuels industry continues to lobby for further incentives, the developing world is screaming for it to stop.
The EU Commission last summer proposed reducing the renewable energy target from 10 to five per cent, a proposal supported by many countries, including Ireland. However, European Energy Ministers this month (12 December), discussed a compromise position to set the target at seven per cent.
Speaking ahead of the vote, Minister Rabbitte described the argument that biofuels have a negative impact on the developing world as “compelling”. While he again stated that Ireland favoured as low a quota as possible, he then voted in favour of the compromise position.
While the Irish government will doubtlessly describe their compromise as pragmatic, it stands in contrast to the positions of Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Luxembourg, all of whom refused to back the deal because it did not do enough to prevent social and environmental harm.
Ireland’s rightful place in this debate is with the block of nations calling for more radical action than merely reducing the quota from 10 to seven per cent. Europe now burns enough food calories in fuel tanks every year to feed 100 million people. Each percentage point reduction would amount to millions of acres of land being handed back to food production to tackle the scandal of hunger.
The impact of biofuel production can be seen in marginalised communities across the developing world. In Guatemala, for example, we have supported a community who were evicted from land in order to expand a sugarcane plantation. Sugarcane is the main ingredient in ethanol-based biofuels. This community has been left with no means to feed themselves, while land they once farmed for food is now used to grow crops for cars.
Europe’s biofuel policy has created an absolute mess. There is a growing acceptance of the fact that our promotion of biofuels is leading to significant problems in poorer parts of the world. We are left with a policy which fewer and fewer nations support, but which remains in place due to a complete inability to agree on how to tackle it.
We urgently need European Energy Ministers to accept firstly that biofuels are both socially and environmentally damaging, and secondly take the necessary action to put in place limits to halt the growth of land-based biofuels.
Energy Ministers might consider the words of Juana Ical, a farmer from Guatemala whose land was taken from her by a large sugarcane plantation. She told us: “If you look at the land now there are acres of sugarcane. Who is going to eat that?”
Tragically, as a result of Europe’s ill-conceived policies, millions of people around the world are asking this question. Ireland should be pushing to end their needless suffering, not contributing to it.
This opinion piece was first published in The Irish Times on Friday 20 December 2013.
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