Saturday, December 15, 2007

Bali and Biofuels

Despite urgings from a number of environmental organizations, issues related to biofuels did not get a thorough airing at the recent United Nations climate change conference in Bali, which ran from December 3rd to the 14th. Demand for biofuels has skyrocketed with many nations rethinking fuel sources to help limit greenhouse gas emissions, but the dark side of biofuels, the impact on food sources, deforestation, and land use, was largely missing from conference sessions and discussions.

As reported in an Inter Press Service article, Climate Change: Biofuels Scarce on Bali Menu, agricultural issues associated with biofuels have a significant impact on food availability:

‘’We are concerned about the pressure biofuel production is placing on the world’s food reserves. If you produce biofuel with food crops like corn, you won’t have it to meet food demand,’’ Jeff McNeely, chief scientist of IUCN said in an interview. ‘’The grain reserves of the world today are the lowest they have been in the last 10 to 15 years.’’

Similar views were expressed by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in pamphlets made available at the U.N. agency’s display booth in the main conference venue. ‘’Food security (availability and accessibility) of the poor may be compromised by increased demand for energy crops,’’ it cautioned.

Currently, the biofuel industry is fed by corn, wheat, sugarcane and palm oil, among other crops. Close to 5,000 lt of biofuel can be extracted from one hectare of corn, 6,000 lt from a hectare of sugarcane and 4,500 lt from a hectare of palm oil, said Barbara Bramble of the National Wildlife Federation during the IUCN-hosted discussion.

A quote from the Netherlands environment minister provides a succinct summary of the issue:

And the main drivers of this demand, the European Union (EU), has admitted that a more sustainable policy is needed to meet a 2010 target of having 5.7 percent of its transport fuel from green sources. ‘’The negative impacts should be avoided,’’ said the Netherlands' environment minister Jacqueline Cramer. ‘’When we use biofuel for our cars, we might be destroying biodiversity and have negative impacts on food production and social and economic development.’’