Why biofuels aren’t a solution to climate change

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ActionAid Blogs
Meals per gallon

As an active climate change campaigner I was equally worried to discover that biofuels could be even worse for the climate than fossil fuels, the very substance they were designed to replace. The terrifying double whammy of hunger and climate change convinced me that biofuels are something we should be using with extreme caution.

Well today it’s a full tank of bad news as the UK government report on their own biofuel usage (last year 2.7% of Britain’s transport fuel came from crops) confirmed that using industrial biofuels in vehicles could accelerate the destruction of the rainforest and result in higher green house emissions than petrol.

A meagre 4% of biofuels imported from abroad met the government’s environmental sustainability standards.  This means the vast majority are increasing climate change emissions and pushing poor farmers off their land.

The Renewable Fuels Agency, who produced the report, also warned that fuel costs could rise in April because biofuel is being added to petrol and diesel making biofuels bad for drivers, bad for poor farmers and bad for the climate. With the government’s own report admitting that biofuels are a very dangerous idea now’s the time to stop putting biofuels in transport fuel. 

Help the government learn the lessons set out in their own report – and demand zero meals per gallon

Biofuels and the price of grain

Emma Hughes's picture
Emma Hughes Campaigns officer

Our Zero Meals Per Gallon campaign is all about food – in particular it’s about not putting food into cars. 

What makes industrial biofuels so detrimental to our fight for a HungerFREE world is that their production competes with food production – crops that could go into people’s stomachs instead go into petrol tanks.

This creates more demand for food crops globally and therefore food prices rise. 

We saw this in 2008 when global grain prices shot up – causing a world food crisis.  Industrial biofuels played a crucial role in creating this crises – even the World Bank recognised the part they played.


“Large increases in biofuel production in the United States and Europe are the main reason behind the steep rise in global food prices.” Don Mitchell, Lead Economist in the World Bank's Development Prospects Group, 2008.

Current biofuel targets are already making staple foods less affordable for the poorest people, sparking riots across the globe from the Phillippines to India, from Mexico to Senegal.

But this is just the start.  Targets are currently being set by the governments of rich countries which will massively increase the amount of land being used for biofuel crops.  If all global biofuel targets are met food prices could rise by a terrifying 76% by 2020.

Our government are helping create this problem, they’re proposing to set targets which will mean 10% of all UK petrol and diesel comes from biofuel by 2020.  The government will commit to these targets in June, if they do a HungerFREE world will be one step further away.

Amazing scenes were witnessed yesterday...

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For the past fortnight my professional life has focussed on the emergency in Haiti, but my imagination has concentrated on another part of the Caribbean: the island of Trinidad, the setting for VS Naipaul’s classic novel “A House for Mr Biswas”.

Mr Biswas (his first name, Mohun, is barely used) is born into great poverty, the son of an indentured labourer who came from India to work on the sugarcane plantations. Mr Biswas accidentally marries into a large, wealthy but squalid landowning family, the Tulsis, who see in him another son-in-law who can work on the family’s estates. Early 20th century Trinidad is poor, and Naipaul’s men and women live narrow, constrained lives. Even in this milieu the Tulsis are quite awful. Their house is dirty, the food bad, the family run as a dictatorship by the sickly Mrs Tulsi and her brother-in-law Seth. They marry off the girl children without a care for happiness or compatibility. These girls grow into mothers who boast how hard they beat their children, whilst the husbands work away on the estates, looking forward to Friday night in the rumshop. The capital Port of Spain, only a few hours distant, is another world. Mr Biswas rebels against all this. He rails against his in-laws and offends their traditional Hindu sensibility. Accidentally literate, he reads cheap detective novels and Marcus Aurelius. He escapes the sugarcane fields and the rice paddies and moves to the big city, where he becomes a journalist on the Trinidad Sentinel. And most importantly he attempts – several times - to build his own house.

Mr Biswas is a fool but he is a modern man trying, and failing, to assert himself in the face of poverty and narrow-mindedness. As Mr Biswas gets older we see Trinidad start to open out. The extended Tulsi clan disintegrates into nuclear families, and they discover personal ambition and a thirst for education. Mr Biswas’ children go abroad on scholarships and Mr Biswas himself finally buys a house.

“A House for Mr Biswas” is a personal book, not a political one, however we see a country taking its first steps in independence and attempting to drag itself out of poverty, and what this means for the men and women caught up in these changes.

Modern Trinidad and Tobago is not a desperately poor country – only 4% of its population lives below the poverty line, and over 70% of the population own a phone. Mr Biswas’ wife Shama is barely literate but today virtually all the island’s girls and boys can read and write. Things have moved on. Hearing the terrible stories from Haiti, and other impoverished nations, sometimes it’s easy to feel that nothing ever changes. Thinking about the life of Mr Biswas – journalist, joker, house-builder – dispels that feeling.

Putting the brakes on biofuels

Emma Hughes's picture
Emma Hughes Campaigns officer

It’s been a hectic first week for our biofuels campaign. The Department for Transport has been inundated with action cards and already the pressure is mounting – with our Meals Per Gallon Gauge standing at half a tank.

Our Zero Meals Per Gallon Campaign is telling Lord Adonis, Secretary of State for the Department of Transport, not to commit to a crazy plan that quadruples the amount of biofuel in UK petrol and diesel.

Our half tank reading means mixed news though and we were forcibly reminded this week of why we need to halt biofuel production by this piece of news: a quarter of all maize and other grain crops grown in the US goes to fuel cars rather than feed people.

The Earth Policy Institute reckons this is enough grain to feed 330 million people a year (according to average world consumption rates).

It is biofuel targets, like the ones currently being proposed by the UK government, that are motivating companies to push grain into fuel rather than food production.

ActionAid have until June to tell the UK government not to increase our biofuel use.  You can help us by taking action to demand Zero Meals per Gallon in UK petrol and diesel.

Plus if you want to learn more come along to our Big Biofuel Debate which is happening at the London Transport Museum on 16 February 2010 at 6.30pm. Places are free of charge, but please book in advance. Email to reserve your seat.

Black water and the future of farming

Meredith Alexander's picture
Meredith Alexander Head of Trade and Corporates

Last week, I learned that water comes in three colours: green, blue and black. I’m not talking about the amazing turquoise seas of the Caribbean nor the steely slate of the North Sea. All fresh water is classified by colour. Green water is the water that falls from the sky and flows across fields as run-off. Blue water is water in streams and rivers or ponds and lakes. Black water is found in underground reservoirs.

The different categories are important because they help us think about how water can be used. A lot of green water is wasted through evaporation or run-off, so farmers can use much more of it than they do now. That’s why rainwater harvesting is such a great way to grow more crops or bring clean water to a village.  

Most of the water we use is blue water. We take water from rivers and lakes to irrigate farms, run factories and keep our taps flowing. There will be a lot more competition in the coming decades. Cities in developing countries are getting thirstier as they grow bigger and richer. At the same time, the environmental reasons why we should leave more water in rivers are becoming clearer. Fish numbers are down and some species can no longer get to their breeding grounds because rivers are running dry.

Black water is the one that has people really worried though. Globally we are mining water: taking water out of underground reservoirs that took eons to collect there.

Why so much fuss about water? We need to double the amount of food we grow by 2050 to make sure everyone has enough to eat. That’s going to take a lot more water. Unfortunately, climate change will actually reduce the amount of green and blue water in many of the world’s poorest places. We should be much more careful about how we mine the black stuff - oil that causes climate change and water that would help us adapt.

Talking about biofuels

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So having spent most of my time with my head stuck in planning a 'virtual' biofuels campaign, it's refreshing for me to remove it and take stock of what's happening to kick off the campaign in the 'real' world. Particularly as the launch event is the big biofuels debate. I love a good, heated debate – in this case, the debate will be (non-bio)fuelled by input from:

- Ben Webster, Environment Editor at The Times(Chair)    

- Greg Archer, Director of the Low Carbon Vehicle Partnership and        co-author of the Gallagher review       
- Professor Keith Smith from the University of Edinburgh   

-  Tim Rice, Biofuel Policy Officer for ActionAid UK          

A good mix of journalists, fuel experts, educators and campaigners. The final ingredient involves you: the audience. There will be plenty of opportunity to ask the panelists any questions you might have, there will be a wine reception (now you're talking) and I'm planning some social media action around it too (more on this later). So make sure you come!

The big biofuels debate is happening at the London Transport Museum on 16 February 2010 at 6.30pm. One word of advice – book now.  Places are free of charge, but we can only fit a certain amount of people into the one room. Email to reserve your seat.