The battle over biofuels

Is bioenergy the savior of the Global South? Or its doom?

Topics: Globalization, How the World Works,

In the realm of renewable energy, no topic seems to throw off more heat and light than the battle over biofuels. If we could just find a way to tap the power generated by the rhetoric of boosters and naysayers alike we’d be halfway to meeting all our energy needs. The drama is accentuated by the lines that are crossed: this is no age-old struggle between greenies and big bad oil robber-barons — this is a fight that splits environmentalists and scientists and progressive non-profits.

Biofuels are seen both as a contributor to global warming and as way to stop it. Biofuels are framed as a tool of agribusinesses pushing GM monoculture crops and as a means for small farmers to diversify their way out of abject poverty. Biofuels are attacked for displacing food production and lauded for providing the income to buy food.

I’m not going to pretend to have definitive answers as to which of these characterizations is more true. But I will recommend, for those who are following the topic from any point on the compass, that they keep their eye on Biopact, a volunteer assocation of biofuel advocates based in Europe who are dedicated to “the production of bioenergy in the developing world, and most notably in sub-Saharan Africa, as a lever to create a new development paradigm in which access to energy, energy security and sustainability play key roles.”

I discovered Biopact when looking into the announcement that Senegal was starting up biofuel production with help from Brazil and India. I subscribed to their newsfeed earlier today, and was immediately stunned by the depth and variety of their coverage. Occasionally, as one explores the ever-expanding blogosphere, you hit a newsfeed or blogger that explodes at you with the pressure of a firehose. Whether you agree with the basic stance of Biopact or not, the sheer energy of their prolific focus is undeniable.

The Biopact team had a very strong negative reaction to the Global Forest Coalition’s attack on biofuels, posted earlier this week at the Energy Bulletin. Here’s a little taste:



In order to reduce poverty — the main cause of deforestation and environmental destruction — small initiatives have virtually no impact. The only way to reduce the environmental destruction by poor people in the South is to increase economic growth and prosperity by having the poor generate incomes themselves and by having governments in the South reduce their dependence on expensive fossil fuels (which are an extremely heavy burden on these economies). The development of an export-oriented biofuels industry might be the best opportunity of the past and coming five decades to do exactly that (as many developing countries are beginning to recognize). Unlike the North, the South has competitive advantages to produce biofuels: vast expanses of unused (non-forest) land and suitable agroclimatic conditions for the production of biofuels that can compete with fossil fuels. Energy independence is within their reach.

The best cases are offered by Brazil, Nigeria and Indonesia. In these countries, biofuels programs are expected to bring millions of jobs to some of the world’s poorest people. Without sustainable jobs and increased incomes, the environment in these countries is set to suffer much more in the future, and contributions to climate change will only increase as a consequence (e.g due to deforestation and reliance on primitive biomass technologies). Investing in income generating, large-scale biofuels production is a sine-qua non for poverty reduction in the South. On the level of states, achieving energy independence through biofuels is becoming a reality in the South. By reducing the economically disastrous dependence on ever more costly oil and gas governments can save large amounts of money that can be invested in poverty alleviation and social development.

The Biopact team seem particularly irate at the equation of biofuel production with increased food prices, hunger and malnutrition.

This is outright nonsense, and a dangerous and fraudulent use of the most basic science. Energy farmers in the South can play on two markets now. This has major micro-economic advantages, not in the least the potential for crop diversification. The era when farmers in the South were dependent on a single crop, and at the mercy of international prices for that crop, is now over. In the past, this single-crop dependency has resulted in mass poverty, mass food insecurity and even total social collapse, with entire communities breaking down when the market for their single crop collapsed.

Luckily, with the emerging market for biofuels, this disastrous situation can finally come to an end. Farmers in Malawi and Lesotho, for example, who used to be dependent on tobacco, are now rejoicing in the fact that they can invest in an alternative crop (a biofuel crop). They are the ones who understand the benefits of diversification. They are the ones who are massively investing in it.

Moreover, now that the farmers have two markets to play on simultaneously, they can do the calculus of investing more in food or more in fuel depending on the prevailing market situation. This again, offers major economic benefits.

One thing is certain though: not investing in biofuels will keep these farmers in poverty and keep them food insecure. That is a guarantee. And it is bizarre to see some NGOs who think to be speaking in the name of rural communities from the South, taking this enormous risk.

Biopact also links to to a paper by John Mathews, a Professor of Strategic Mangament at Macquarie University in Australia, “A Biofuels Manifesto: Why biofuels industry creation should be ‘Priority Number One’ for the World Bank and for developing countries.”

In general, I think Mathews is too dismissive of arguments against biofuels, but he makes one core assertion that should be a central part of the debate: the calculus of the pros and cons of biofuels changes when you move from developed to developing nations.

“There is a huge literature hostile to biofuels, accusing them of being energy-intensive in cultivation; taking land from food crops; and enhancing monoculture,” writes Mathews. “But these are largely arguments stemming from developed countries and describing developed country conditions — particularly in U.S. and northern Europe.”

In many developing nations, contends Mathews, “there are vast tracts of degraded and semi-arid land that can be utilized for fuel crops.” Biofuels with higher energy efficiency can be produced at lower costs than in the developed world.

If true, this is a critical point. If cassava or jatropha can be cultivated in Nigeria or Senegal or India on semi-arid land that is no longer suitable for food cultivation, then the equation of biofuels with rainforest destruction does not hold.

Biopact’s bioenergy advocacy will rile biofuel detractors. But it will also make them hone their own arguments. If that results in specific models of biofuel production that satisfy developing country needs for energy independence, export markets, poverty alleviation and sustainable development, well then, we might be getting somewhere.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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