The biofuels agenda highlights the importance of looking at power and politics in order to understand international decision-making in a globalised world. Few agendas show so clearly the linkages between environmental, social and economic concerns (such as climate change, poverty and profit) and our willingness to act against our long-term interests.
If a politically meaningful movement towards a paradigm of sustainable development really existed, the biofuels agenda would mark a critical juncture in that movement. Leaders would make decisions that reflect a long-term perspective, with due consideration of issues such as climate change, food security, and the voices of those stakeholders that have the most to lose. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Despite growing concern over the environmentally and socially damaging consequences of biofuels, EU proposals on November 29th of this year look set to increase a proposed cap on production from 5% to 7%.
It’s easy to see why biofuels are an attractive option. In one sense, they are an ideal substitute for fossil fuels: existing vehicle technology requires little or no modification in order to use them. Energy security concerns, high oil import costs and carbon emissions reduction targets have also contributed to increasing demand.
But the mounting evidence against biofuels is impossible to ignore.
- While the EU’s 2009 Renewable Energy Directive (RED) (which promotes biofuels) was designed, at least in part, to ‘greenify’ energy-use in Europe by reducing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with fossil fuels, a growing body of research suggests that biofuels can lead to an overall increase in greenhouse gas emissions (as a result of land-use changes).
- By diverting important crops, like wheat and maize, away from food markets, biofuels cause food prices to increase. Biofuels production contributed to dramatic increases in the 2007-2008 food crisis, which led to riots in 31 countries. In the aftermath of the crisis, Jean Zieger, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, described biofuels as a ‘crime against humanity’.
- Rising food prices and growing demand for biofuels make land an attractive investment opporutnity. Large-scale land deals often occur in rural areas in developing countries where people may not have legally recognised land rights. Poor people can find themselves powerless in the face of large foreign corporations, and ultimately end up dispossessed of the land on which they rely.
The fact that industrial biofuels production is being promoted despite (or without due regard for) the potential consequences shows that policymaking in Europe is not entirely evidence-based. It is also indicative of a severe power imbalance in decision-making. While there is a wide range of stakeholders that stand to be affected by the biofuels agenda, not all stakeholders have equal power in shaping that agenda.
Corporate interests have had a significant influence. Biofuels TP, for example, an industry organisation, was funded by the EU in 2006 to assist in the formulation of Europe’s biofuels strategy up until 2030. Commentators at the time observed that the organisation’s steering committee lacked civil society representation, and was made up almost entirely of industry representatives. Furthermore, suggestions were made that the evidence was found to support the 10% target in the EU, rather than the other way around.
Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising then that profit is being prioritised over environmental issues and the concerns of the poor. And while negotiations among EU member states in November and December of this year looked like an opportunity to respond to the evidence and mounting calls against biofuels, maybe it should come as no surprise that effective corporate lobbying has again proven influential.
The biofuels agenda makes it clear that sustainable development will require policymakers and civil society to understand the roles of power and politics in shaping planning processes. Care must be taken to increase the bargaining power of people in rural areas in developing countries. Civil society organisations must be involved in decision-making. Corporate interests must not be allowed to dominate. And political leaders and governmental institutions must understand and uphold their obligations to protect the poor and vulnerable and make decisions that promote sustainable development.
It’s worth noting that, under the right circumstances, biofuels could play a positive role in reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, and even reducing poverty. Smallholder production, inclusive business models, recognition of traditional land rights, and ecologically appropriate crops and processing techniques could help avoid the negative consequences. But this again highlights the need to take into account the influence of power and politics. These concerns will always take the backseat as long as short-term political and corporate interests dominate the agenda.
Have a look at Karl Mathiesen’s excellent analysis of the biofuels debate for the Guardian