Paving the way for agrofuels: an unsustainable path

25 September 2007
In the face of the climate change threat and the increasing scarcity of fossil fuels, agrofuels are being heavily promoted as a means to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The EU is proposing a 10 per cent mandatory target for agrofuel use in transport by 2020. Yet there is strong and growing evidence that, far from reducing emissions, the rush to agrofuels will significantly accelerate climate change, as well as contributing to a range of other social and environmental problems.

There are strong concerns about the negative social and environmental implications of current EU agrofuel policy. The EU is planning to introduce a 10 per cent (energy content) agrofuel target for the transport sector by 2020. Establishing sustainability criteria to justify this policy has become a key issue in the international debate on agrofuels and bioenergy, and discussions on the topic are moving ahead at a swift pace.

Agrofuels are currently only economically competitive with the aid of strong government support and subsidies. EU targets are now being set, and subsidies are being granted, to further encourage agrofuel use – but these do not address most of the ‘sustainability issues’, including the indirect impacts of the push for agrofuels. The Council of Ministers is demanding that agrofuel targets be met ‘sustainably’, yet EU policy is on a collision course because these two objectives are conflicting.

It remains unclear what volume of agrofuels is needed to meet the EU’s 10 per cent target, and what proportion of this will be imported from the South. Europe already imports large amounts of unsustainable commodities like soya, palmoil and sugar cane for food, animal feed and industrial uses. A massive increase in demand for agrofuels is leading to the further expansion of monoculture plantations. This has far-reaching, negative consequences in terms of food security, food sovereignty and GHG emissions.

Certification systems and sustainability criteria cannot deal with indirect or macro-level impacts of agrofuel production, such as displacement. EU and US agrofuel targets and incentives are already fuelling increases in the global prices of several crops, indirectly encouraging expansion. Criteria and standards are now being discussed without input from those most affected by the expansion of monoculture plantations. An important consequence of this failure is that important issues are ignored and inappropriate indicators are chosen.

Monitoring and compliance are common problems in current certification schemes. The certification system now often proposed for agrofuels (‘book and claim’ instead of ‘track and trace’) has proved to be unreliable when used in other certification systems.

Several important considerations are commonly left out of proposed agrofuel certification schemes altogether, such as the use of GMOs, agrobiodiversity, rural depopulation and impoverishment (as opposed to ‘rural development’). In addition, large producers are typically at an advantage in coping with the bureaucracy related to certification, which can place a heavy burden on small producers.

Unsustainable solutions
The proposals currently on the table are disillusioning, to say the least.

The European Commission is considering the introduction of criteria for only two ‘sustainability issues’: greenhouse gas balance and ‘high biodiversity value’ areas. This approach ignores all other social and environmental concerns, as well as the displacement impacts of agrofuels.

The UK and The Netherlands have settled for a weak system of mandatory reporting until at least 2011. Even the most unsustainable agrofuels for transport, and in the Dutch case unsustainable biomass for electricity generation, will be promoted by all of the available support measures including targets, tax breaks and subsidies.

It is often suggested that displacement can be avoided by making sure that agrofuels are grown on ´marginal´ or ´degraded´ lands, yet these often have existing social and environmental functions and values. None of the current plans include measures to encourage or legislate for a strong decrease in consumption for other uses (animal feed, paper) as a condition for the expansion of agrofuels.

The WTO is said to be a barrier to strong, mandatory sustainability safeguards – despite the role played by the EU in creating its rules.

Meta-standard approach
The UK and The Netherlands are likely to support a ‘meta-standard approach’, which would accredit existing certification schemes like FSC, RSPO and RTRS to certify agrofuels or biomass. This could mean that any product certified under these labels would automatically be approved, with only an additional GHG calculation being made.

Unanswered questions remain about these existing schemes, however. Many lack civil society participation from groups in the global South, with some (like the RTRS) facing civil society opposition. Doubts have been raised about the reliability of some existing measures. The rapid expansion of agrofuels could also undermine the objectives of some of these existing schemes, creating an additional pressure upon already limited ‘sustainable’ sources, and contributing to the displacement of unsustainable production.

GHG calculation methods
Attempts to calculate the greenhouse gas balance of energy crops face similar problems to those described above. GHG calculation methods (Net Energy or Life-cycle assessments, also called ‘Well to Wheel’ studies) of energy crops cannot take into account indirect impacts caused by displacement.

Existing studies fail to consider a number of important parameters, including emissions produced from land use changes (like deforestation) and soil carbon losses. Some of the studies produce results with very large error margins, making certification on the basis of these findings problematic.

Most of the current studies of the GHG balance of energy crops are non-peer reviewed, and increasingly these studies are company-sponsored. Many inputs are left out of the calculations. The methodologies used vary widely, making it hard to compare the results.

Clean Development Mechanism
Current attempts to include agrofuel production within the framework of the Kyoto Protocol through the use of the Clean Development Mechanism have the potential to provide a huge financial boost to the expansion of agrofuel plantations.

There are a number of broad problems with the CDM that could be magnified were agrofuels to become eligible for support from this scheme. Several CDM projects have already been implemented without the consent of local communities. On the whole, the projects have tended to benefit larger corporations rather than smaller projects.

CDM projects also face uncertainties in the calculation of GHG balance. Calculation methods vary, and the Mechanism itself provides a financial incentive to exaggerate the ‘baseline’ of existing pollution in order to maximise the number of ‘carbon credits’ generated by such projects. This tendency is exacerbated by the fact that the task of calculating GHG emissions is typically carried out by the very companies who stand to benefit financially from the execution of the CDM projects.

Alternatives to the agrofuels rush
The rush to agrofuels and bio-energy looks set to fuel a massive expansion in monoculture plantations, a process that is being accelerated by EU agrofuel targets and subsidies. Large-scale production of this sort comes at the expense of the environment, communities and the global climate commons.

Growing awareness among the media and wider public is rightly endangering support for the current EU policies. Instead of incentivising the unsustainable expansion of agrofuels, action should be taken at source to transform existing transport schemes and city planning, reduce the use of energy and other resources, and take responsibility for the EU’s historical ecological and social debt.

Recent publications from Environmental Justice

Anglo American’s dirty energy lobby and its false climate solutions

Climate talks in Lima will be subject to intense lobbying by some of the biggest industrial polluters. They not only cause serious social and environmental conflicts where they extract fossil fuels, their capture of decision-making also prevents a real solution to the climate crisis.

Corporate Conquistadors

An examination of the destructive environmental record of Repsol, Glencore Xstrata and Enel-Endesa in Latin America and worldwide is clear evidence that transnational corporations should have no place in decision-making around the climate.

Venezuela: terminal crisis of the rentier petro-state?

Venezuela's failure to develop an effective strategy to reduce its economy's dependence on gas and oil threatens the social successes and future viability of the Bolivarian project.

The Emerging Economies and Climate Change

The BASIC bloc of countries in UN negotiations have too often ended up collaborating and colluding with the inaction of industrialised countries, undermining the future of the poor in their own countries and throughout the South.