Fuelling a Carbon Crisis

If we are to radically reduce transport emissions then the truth is that we have no choice but to do

This year the Indonesian Government will officially hold a new Guinness World Record - the fastest pace of deforestation. They must be so proud. Between 2000 and 2005 Indonesia lost two percent of its forest each year, representing an area of wildlife rich tropical forest the size of Wales. That’s three hundred football pitches of forest per hour.

Illegal logging is certainly a big driver but there is another more sinister cause – the meticulously planned clearance of rainforest to make way for the expansion of oil palm plantations. There are now over 6 million hectares of oil palm in Indonesia and the Government is handing out concessions to triple this area by 2020.

In turn, one of the principle drivers of this expansion is the development of the European biofuels industry. Although the vast majority of global palm oil is used by the food industry you only need to attend a palm oil industry conference to get a feel for where the action is. Biofuel is the word on everyone’s lips.

The damage from the oil palm industry was recently brought into stark relief by Weltands International who found that Indonesia was the third biggest source of greenhouse gases in the world, taking into account forest destruction, forest fires and the destruction of the peat swamps. They calculated that emissions tied to a litre of palm oil sourced from an area converted from peat forest are between 3 and 10 times more polluting than a litre of conventional diesel.

And it’s not just the environmental impacts we should be concerned about. New research from Friends of the Earth has found that in Indonesia the majority of communities affected by oil palm plantation development are horrifically exploited. They are cheated, lied to and abused. As a result many of these communities are losing their life blood, their land, and are being torn apart.

This then is the face of the biofuel industry when it goes wrong. And it is going wrong in many developing countries all over the world. Nightmare biofuel development stories are unfolding in Latin America and African too. If done badly, biofuels can not only raise food prices for the poor, destroy livelihoods and annihilate the most biodiverse habitat on Earth, they can increase carbon emissions too.

You would think then that the UK Government, UK biofuels industry and European Commission would be bending over backwards to introduce tough standards to guarantee that only sustainable biofuels are used. After all, concern over climate change was meant to be one of the key reasons why this Government sought to subsidise the biofuels industry to the tune of millions of pounds.

You would though be wrong. The Commission has set a legal target of 5.75% of fuel to be biofuel by 2010 and Heads of State signed up this year to a 10% target by 2020. This has been done before either the Commission or any European Government have actually bothered to sit down and work out exactly how such huge volumes of biofuel could be sourced sustainably.

These legal targets were also set before any proper thought had been given to the most carbon friendly way of using biomass at all. Carbon savings from burning biomass for the generation of heat and electricity typically saves double the amount of carbon emissions than using it in fuel. Yet there is no legal target for using biomass in this way.

No, it is biofuel that our politicians seem so obsessed with. And you can understand why. Their policies to address the consumption of fuel and fuel efficiency have spectacularly failed. But if we are to radically reduce transport emissions then the truth is that we have no choice but to do tackle our unquenchable thirst for fuel. If we fail to do so we simply export our disastrous environmental impact elsewhere.

No one wants a solution to climate change more than Friends of the Earth. But without strong legal standards in place and policies to use biomass in the most efficient way, biofuels could do more harm than good. In our quest to tackle the greatest environmental crisis this world is facing we could in fact make it worse.