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Issue 265
March/April 2011
Intrinsic Values

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Unsustainable Subsidies
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Cover: Brown Hare. Photograph: David Tipling

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Unsustainable Subsidies

Grassroots organisation raises awareness of the impact of industrial biofuel production.

The drive to generate clean renewable energy makes complete sense in a climate-changing world. It’s the complementary strand to demand-reduction, and these are the only two ways of reducing emissions. However, signatory nations to the Kyoto Protocol are failing dismally, with average emissions up 10% since the agreement was adopted in 1997.

In Europe, the Renewable Energy Directive (RED) is the one remaining hope. It mandates all member states to produce a minimum of 20% of all energy from renewable sources by 2020. It’s far from perfect – it’s not linked to efficiency or demand-reduction – but inclusions for biofuels and woodchips (biomass) as sources of ‘renewable energy’ are disastrous, as they outweigh any benefits the RED might have. Only a year after the directive was passed, the volunteer-led campaign group Biofuelwatch received reports of plantation expansion for woodchip bioenergy in West Papua, Guyana, Brazil and the Congo.

Most school children could tell you that destroying natural habitats must be bad for the environment. And they would be right: a full 20% of global CO2 emissions is attributable to deforestation biomass-burning. Loss of biodiversity and dwindling ecosystems also weaken other life-support systems. For example, global rainfall cycles, which underpin crop production worldwide, are already faltering. Irregular rainfall patterns are closely linked to both warming temperatures and natural habitat loss.

In the UK, subsidies – which in the case of biofuels amount to double that for onshore wind – are driving venture capital away from true renewables. BP has completely pulled out of wind and solar, and both BP and Shell are now major investors in bioenergy, particularly in Brazil. Neither the environmental destruction nor the well-documented human-rights abuses seem to perturb policymakers or investors.

Under EU legislation, and soon under rules for UK subsidies, evictions and human-rights abuses (even murder) are not seen as reasons for biofuels to be considered ‘unsustainable’. Continuing subsidies under those circumstances (when EU legislation doesn’t demand any subsidies for biofuels for heat and electricity) means rewarding human-rights abuses and the destruction of livelihoods.

Some NGOs suggest that the answer is to introduce sustainability standards. But there’s a disastrous precedent to this. When the standard for sustainable palm oil (RSPO) was introduced two years ago, it quickly became utilised by the industry to negotiate new logging concessions and to brand its palm oil ‘sustainable’. GAPKI (a group of 250 palm-oil producers), for example, used it to successfully oppose a moratorium on rainforest and peatland conversion in Indonesia.

To add insult to injury, bioenergy is highly inefficient: photovoltaic cells would generate 100 times more energy than biofuel on the equivalent land area in temperate zones.

Currently there are seven biofuel power stations and thirty-one biomass power stations in the pipeline across the UK. Nearly all are close to ports, indicating that the biofuel and woodchip will not be sourced from the UK. In reality, they can’t possibly be: the UK meets only 20% of its own demand for paper, pulp and wood, and any new biomass produced at home will come at the expense of biodiverse forests.

Biofuelwatch is campaigning for government to repeal all incentives for biofuels and biomass burning, and is building grassroots opposition to new biofuel power stations across the country. But this cannot be achieved without concerned citizens.

If you feel moved to help please contact us: info@biofuelwatch.org.uk

Deepak Rughani is co-director, Biofuelwatch

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