Promises, promises...

Tim Rice

Biofuel Policy Advisor

Biofuels are big business. The European Union’s Renewable Energy Directive – which commits EU member states including the UK to ensuring that 10 per cent of transport fuels come from renewable sources within the next 10 years - means that biofuel consumption in the UK and other member states is set to almost quadruple. And along with the legislation have come government incentives and subsidies that increase demand. 

Biofuels pressure gauge Yet as with any boom industry, there is a lot of froth. Claims about so called wonder crops, like jatropha, are often based on wishful thinking rather than hard science.

Jatropha is a small tree originating in central America whose seeds contain oil that can be refined into biodiesel. Interest in jatropha has skyrocketed in the last five years as governments worldwide have adopted biofuel policies. The most regularly repeated claim about jatropha is that it will grow on so-called marginal land, and will therefore not compete with food crops. There are two major flaws with this argument.

 Firstly, the land is often already used. Women in particular rely on marginal land to gather firewood or medicinal plants. Secondly, while jatropha might grow on marginal land, that does not mean that it will produce enough oil to be economically viable.  Just like most other crops, jatropha needs good-quality land to produce optimum results. Jatropha cannot give a decent return on the investment unless it is grown on fertile land with an adequate supply of water. As a result, farmers usually do grow jatropha on good quality land. For example, on a research trip to India, every farmer growing jatropha who ActionAid spoke to was using land that used to grow rice, vegetables or other food crops. 

Unfortunately, jatropha is not the only thing that has been oversold in the rush to turn plants into fuel. Overall, biofuels are failing to live up to their promise. The most important claim made for biofuels is that they will help us solve climate change. The truth is most industrial biofuels are worse for the climate than the fossil fuels they are supposed to replace. There are two main issues: fertilisers and land.

Most biofuels need nitrogen fertiliser to grow. This creates nitrous oxide – a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more damaging than carbon dioxide. But more importantly, increased biofuel production creates more demand for land.  

If we cut down rainforests or plow up grasslands to plant more biofuels, we will release massive amounts of carbon. This can happen directly, as is the case in Indonesia where rainforests are being cut down to grow palm oil. Or it can happen indirectly, as in Brazil, where farmers are being pushed off their land and have to move into new areas. 

Biofuels will also increase hunger by pushing up food prices. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, increased demand for industrial biofuels will be responsible for a third of the rise in agriculture prices foreseen for the next ten years.

In fact, increased global biofuel use could force 600 million more people into hunger by 2020. This is not a theoretical discussion: demand for industrial biofuels was one of the main causes of a spike in food prices in 2008 that contributed significantly to making 100 million more people hungry. 

Biofuels are spreading fast. From Ghana to Guatemala and Mozambique to India, ActionAid is seeing first-hand the consequences of western consumption of biofuels. EU companies have already acquired or are in the process of acquiring 5 million hectares for biofuel production – that’s an area of land more than twice the size of Wales.  

The UK now faces a choice - we can continue to expand our biofuel production at the expense of poor people, or we can stop investing in an approach that is not even helping the environment. The UK government has less than five months to submit its plan for renewable energy use in transport to the European Commission. It must take this time to reflect on the problems inherent in jatropha and other biofuels. Instead of supporting scientifically-unsound biofuels, we should invest in proven ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as increasing fuel efficiency and improving public transport.