Wednesday, 16 July 2008

THE BIG BIOFUEL DEBATE RUMBLES ON

By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

Biofuels have little impact in cutting greenhouse gas emissions so governments should concentrate instead on lowering energy consumption to fight climate change, according to an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report published today. Governments should boost the so-called second generation biofuels that do not use food crops, said the report, which will be seen as a blow to biofuels. But elsewhere the sector is booming and the conflicts around biofuel production are not being played out in quite the same way.

Earlier this month the Guardian newspaper published an article detailing a confidential World Bank report that claimed biofuels have forced global food prices up by 75% - far more than previously estimated. The implication of the report being that biofuels have been at the centre of the recent high food price-hunger-food riot cycle.

The Guardian's exclusive has sparked much debate at a time when the production of biofuels has become highly contentious.

Last week, we heard an upbeat presentation on Brazils' bio-ethanol experience from Luiz Augusto Horta Nogueira, a bioenergy expert from Itajubá Federal School of Engineering, Minas Gerais, Brazil. STEPS member Adrian Smith blogged on Horta Nogueira's presentation at the launch of Demos' latest Atlas of Ideas publication, Brazil, the Natural Knowledge Economy. As Adrian said at the time, there was much talk of the positive economic effects of bio-ethnol production and its growth capacitym but little of the conflicts around the issue.

And this week, Brazil's bioenergy research has received a boost with the announcement of US$130m investment in a new research programme promoting cooperation between academic institutions and industry. SciDev.Net's report said: "In addition to academic activities, BIOEN will work with private companies in Brazil's bioethanol industry to bring new technologies to industry sooner."

Meanwhile, in Kenya, a court has temporarily halted a $370 million sugar and biofuels project in a coastal wetland. Reuters reports that conservation groups warned the project would threaten wildlife and local livelihoods. One study shows irrigation in the area would cause severe drainage of the Delta, leaving local farmers without water for their herds during dry seasons.

And cassava conversion is the focus of a new initiative in Cambodia where a North Korean company is setting up Cambodia's first biofuel factory.

Are the potential harm to livelihoods and the environment being left out of the debate? Earlier this month the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization published a report that claimed the global biofuels boom risks harming poor people in poor countries by forcing them off land they depend on.


Dispossession was a theme touched on by Les Levidow and Helena Paul who gave a STEPS seminar in January on the links between biofuel production, higher land and food prices and dispossesion from resouces. As Paul said during the seminar: "Why should it only be this one path? We really need to look at the targets, the targets are set, industry is racing ahead and we have people running behind saying 'let's look at sustainability'. But it's too little, too late."

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