Deforestation to make way for palm oil plantation Indonesia

4 reasons biofuels aren't the answer to climate change

Politicians and corporations have been promoting the large-scale production of fuels from crops. They claim these biofuels are an easy solution to climate change. But in reality they just ravage more of the planet's natural resources.
  Published:  14 Sep 2017    |      3 minute read

Biofuels aren't the magic fix they appear to be. You might be surprised how much they contribute to global warming – as well as the dent they put in the Earth's natural resources.  

The impact of biofuel production

1. Threatens food supplies and farmers’ livelihoods

No land no food
World Food Day March, Indonesia
Credit: WALHI/Friends of the Earth Indonesia

Biofuels compete with food production for land and water, with companies making land grabs to grow profitable biofuel crops.

This land grab is harming some of the world’s poorest people. Indigenous peoples are being forced to leave their ancestral homes to make way for plantations – stripping them of their livelihoods and creating violent conflicts.

This results in rising food prices around the world, especially in developing countries.

2. Destroys forests and other valuable habitat

Biofuels deforestation
Credit: Amelia Collins / Friends of the Earth

If deforestation in South East Asia continues, 75% of the original forests could be gone by 2030 according to the United Nations Environment Programme. Biofuels are part of the problem.

Clearing forests to make way for biofuel crops has an obvious impact. But when land used to grow crops for food is converted to more profitable biofuel crops, this also produces indirect effects – as more land is then cleared to grow replacement food crops.

Producing palm oil for food and biofuels is threatening a whole way of life in Indonesia’s tropical forests. The destruction of the forest is bad news for the millions of people who rely directly on the forest. For hundreds of years the forest has provided food, materials, and medicine for the communities living in it. Once the forest is gone, families often have to take poorly paid work to survive.

It's bad news for the planet too. Fires, started to clear the land, and CO2 emissions from deforestation have made Indonesia one of the world’s biggest polluters.

As palm plantations replace natural rainforest, orangutans and other wildlife are being pushed closer to extinction.

3. Increases greenhouse gases

British traffic jam
Credit: iStock

In 2009, the EU set a target to source 10% of its transport fuel from renewables by 2020 – mainly through biofuels.

But rather than reducing greenhouse gases, the resulting biofuel emissions were estimated at 56 million tonnes of additional climate emissions, the equivalent of an extra 26 million cars on Europe's roads by 2020.

The EU's goal encouraged biofuel production, including from palm oil and soybean. Greenhouse emissions from biodiesel are more than 3 times higher than those from conventional diesel engines, when indirect effects are taken into account.

After 6 years of campaigning by allies in Europe and the UK, in 2015 the EU agreed to set a cap that only 7% of its target can be met by conventional biofuels made from food crops. The EU also committed to end member-state aid for crop-based biofuels by 2020, sending a strong message to global markets.

With 2020 just a few years away, EU member states, including the UK, must now set the course for phasing out the blending of crop-based biofuels into our fuels.

The biofuels bubble has burst. These fuels do more harm than good for people, the environment and the climate. The EU's long-awaited move to put the brakes on biofuels is a clear signal to the rest of the world that this is a false solution to the climate crisis. This must spark the end of burning food for fuel. Robbie Blake, Friends of the Earth Europe's biofuels campaigner

4. Diverts support from other renewable energy sources

Power station
Credit: Thinkstock

The UK government is subsidising the burning of trees in power stations as “renewable energy”. Yet studies show that burning trees can result in higher greenhouse gas emissions even than burning coal, exacerbating our impacts on climate change. 

The UK is becoming increasingly dependent on imported wood pellets for power generation as a result of government policies intended to increase the use of renewable energy sources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The shift to wood is being used to keep some of the UK’s dirtiest coal-fired power stations in business, and to add to the problem, they are being fuelled by supplies of imported wood pellets, sourced from endangered natural forests (e.g. wetland forests) and unsustainably managed plantations, damaging biodiversity.

We need real solutions

Our government must promote genuine solutions to climate change, which include cutting down on the amount of meat we produce and consume, promoting more fuel-efficient cars and improving public transport.

More greenhouse gas cuts could be achieved at lower cost and risk by implementing a range of other policies.