Wising up to the reality of biofuels

The EU is next week due to propose a ban on imports of many kinds of biofuels. If approved by European governments, the law would prohibit importing fuels made from crops grown on certain kinds of land — including grasslands, forests or wetlands into Europe.

The draft law would also demand that biofuels used in the EU deliver “a minimum level of greenhouse gas savings”. Biofuels, you may recall, are the great Green Hope, promising the dream of guilt-free motoring to the worried middle classes.

The Saab 9-5 biofuel car for instance is, according to the ads run in Ireland over the last 12 months, ‘Driven by Nature’. Aaaah, sure if it’s natural, then that’s OK, right? Wrong.

A number of major new studies have discredited the claims made by biofuel producers that the fuels help cut greenhouse gases by reducing fossil fuel use and growing CO2-absorbing plants. Growing the crops and turning them into fuel can, it now transpires, lead to very serious environmental harm.

The draining and deforesting of peatlands in Southeast Asia, much of which is to make way for palm plantations to feed growing demand for biofuels, is now producing a whopping 8% of the entire planet’s annual CO2 emissions, according to an estimate from the environmental NGO, Friends of the Earth.

To see what the slogan ‘Driven by Nature’ means in reality, have a look at Indonesia. This one country has cleared 44 million acres of forest to allow for the planting of massive palm oil developments to feed the biofuel market.

This green sham is wiping out vast tracts of forest which is home to a huge range of wildlife, including the endangered Orang Utan and the Sumatran tiger, as well as pressuring the indigenous peoples who live in the forests.

In the US, scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Washington chimed in that biofuel production is leading to environmental destruction, pollution and damage to human health.

“Different biofuels vary enormously in how eco-friendly they are”, said a spokesman at the institute. “We need to be smart and promote the right biofuels”.

This biofuels dilemma is partly of the EU’s own making. In recent years the Union declared its target that nearly 6% of all transport fuel in the EU would be from biofuel sources.

This in turn started a stampede among countries eager to cash in on the ‘biofuel bonanza’ – by chopping down yet more forests and converting crops that currently feed people in the Third World into ‘food’ for our petrol tanks instead.

Closer to home, earlier this evening, RTE aired an Eco Eye special on Climate Change, hosted by Duncan Stewart. The 25-minute show aired from 7.30pm, but despite its brevity, was thoroughly researched and featured a strong cast of experts from both at home and abroad.

What isn’t known is how many school children would have tuned into the programme. A report published in the UK yesterday found that geography as a school subject is in decline, with schoolchildren claiming it is “boring and irrelevant”.

This is doubly important right now as students are failing to gain an understanding of climate change, environmentalism and global citizenship through lessons which are too often led by non-specialists, according to the study from Osfted.

There is no comparable data for Ireland, but you would have to feel that older school children must be in some way alarmed about global warming. Then again, they probably look to their elders and reckon, well how bad can it really be? ‘My Ma and Da still drive an Audi Q7 and take 10 foreign trips a year, yerra it must be all just hype’.

And truthfully, who could blame them?

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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One Response to Wising up to the reality of biofuels

  1. Saab Ireland says:

    Very interesting point I had not considered before this…

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