Opinion: Who would hurt all mankind, just to save face?

Back in September, Geoffrey Payne asked here on LDV what green activists who berate the Lib Dems expect us to do. Well, we could start by ditching our indefensible commitment to biofuel targets.

Later this month, the Council of Europe and MEPs are due to approve the EU climate package, including a commitment to 10% ‘renewable’ fuelling of vehicles by 2020, most of which is expected to come from biofuels; 6% can be met by those from foodstuffs.

Lib Dem MEPs have worked for some improvements in the package, but (along with the other largest political groupings) still support the ‘biofuel’ targets. With this year’s food scarcity delivering a major warning shock, while large arable farmers made fortunes, where are our values of providing for the poor and cutting inequality?

The issues go further than hunger; another is the sheer cost of the “land crunch”. Amazon deforestation in Brazil was recently found to have increased by 228% (ie, more than tripled) compared with the rate a year before, largely driven by rising food prices. The IMF notes, ‘Almost half the increase in consumption of major food crops in 2007 was related to biofuels.’ And the lead author of a major EU-commissioned study ‘he Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity has told BBC News, “whereas Wall Street by various estimates has to date lost, within the financial sector, $1-$1.5 trillion, at today’s rate we are losing natural capital [from deforestation] of at least between $2-$5 trillion every year.”

The policy is worsening climate change, not least because of the land-use change effects. The EU Joint Research Centre (JRC) warned months ago that “if 2.4% of biodiesel comes directly or indirectly from palm oil grown on peatland, the GHG savings from EU biodiesel are cancelled out… unless there are large changes in the pattern of palm oil development, [an expected] 12% of the extra vegetable oil for biodiesel would come indirectly from palm oil on peat land (more than enough to negate the GHG savings from all EU biofuels).”

The JRC also warned that so-called ‘second generation’ biofuels would compete for biomass with the electricity sector, where biomass made “much” more emissions savings.

All this at an unnecessary cost to our economies. The same JRC report noted that ‘the costs of EU biofuels outweigh the benefits’, and that achieving a 6.9% penetration of biofuels by 2020 was likely to cost the EU a net € 33 – 65 billion from 2007-20 with 80% probability – even after potential benefits in CO2 savings and security of oil supply are counted. It concluded ‘there is virtually no chance’ of the gains exceeding the costs. The European Economic and Social Committee has concluded that any gains were ‘out of all proportion to the costs and associated risks,’ and the 10% target represented ‘an extreme misallocation of resources’.

The downsides are so multiverse, it is hard to fit them all in. Biofuel expansion has ratcheted up the cost of fertilizer and quickens our unsustainable depletion of mineral phosphorus and ancient groundwater. Thousands, potentially millions, of ‘biofuel refugees’ are being created by monoculturalists of soya, jatropha and oil palms; orang-utans and other exotic wildlife are being forced off the map.

This year’s Gallagher Review argued for a continued rise in biofuel targets as a stimulus for biofuels of the future. So what next? Will we allow drug companies or carmakers to starve and displace millions, lay waste the world’s rainforests and worsen climate change, not for the sake of existing products but their R&D drives?

Another defence made is that by raising our biofuel consumption, we can promote wider adherence to our biofuel ‘sustainability’ standards. As if by consuming more biofuels we can bring about less deforestation and hunger: “the more you spend, the more you save”. Yeah right.

2007 was a year of contrasts. After the Green Party, OECD and many environmental groups including Friends of the Earth had come out against biofuel targets, the Lib Dem autumn conference approved a commitment to a 10% biofuel target even more bullish than the Government’s.

Finchley and Golders Green Lib Dems submitted an Amendment against it, but only a Deletion was heard, not debated separately and which was roundly rejected. Should I feel lucky that I got to speak for even one minute in that debate, in a big, busy party?

This Saturday, Nick Clegg will be addressing the National Climate March in London and many senior Lib Dems will attend. One of the four main calls of the march is a “No” to expansion of agrofuels (biofuels for transport from large-scale crops or forestry, excluding algae).

I hope it will be an occasion for listening, as well as speaking out. As a party we have much to celebrate for our work towards strong Climate Change and Energy Acts, but also much to re-examine.

* Jim Roland is a Liberal Democrat member in north London.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Yes, it is important to show our solidarity with the Orangutans: we stand shoulder to shoulder with them in the evolutionary tree.

  • Biofuels are an example of the idiotic transactionalist mentality of New Labour.

    Roll your debts from one credit card to another, you can avoid payment day indefinitely. We know that doesn’t work in the economy & it doesn’t work environmentally. So why switch from one polluting fuel to another instead of trying to show restraint & develop genuinely green technology? Because the transition would require bold thinking & change, so it must be avoided according to the “minds” in government.

    I am a member of Friends of the Earth & I have called upon them to make more of opposition to biofuels. There are still people who imagine that greens support this stupidity.

    This is all just greenwashing of the kind New Labour & large corporations love. It angers me because we have the technology, the scientists, the educators, the entrepeneurs & a workforce lying idle who could all be deployed in a sustainable economy. But we can’t be bothered.

  • David Evans 4th Dec '08 - 10:41pm

    I agree with most of the posts. The only bit I would debate is the view that Labour and Large Corporations are the main anti-greens. I’m afraid most politicians are prone to greenwash gestures – e.g. the EU banning tungsten bulbs, but continuing its monthly trip to Strasbourg. Ultimately most of what they come up with is just a gesture, so that they can persuade us they really are trying.

  • Yes, but I think banning tungsten bulbs throughout the internal market will do more to combat climate change than scrapping a monthly trip to Strasbourg.

    That said, if the European Parliament could stop meeting in Strasbourg, it would. It’s not as though they enjoy doing it.

  • David Evans 4th Dec '08 - 11:19pm

    I’m not sure of the validity of the claim. Yes they use less energy, but what proportion of the heat tungsten bulbs generate is wasted? I haven’t seen any research on this. If anyone else has, I would appreciate it. Also, I haven’t seen any evidence on how much energy it would take to extract the poisonous mercury from them when they are used up. They tend to weigh four or five times as much as tungsten bulb, but recycling them has been totally ignored in the rush to make a gesture. Now if the EU had established standards to ensure that low energy lightbulbs were recycled, then I would say they were getting closer to being real greens.

    As for them not enjoying Strasbourg. They don’t hate it enough to be bothered to do anything about it. Until they do, I’m afraid I have the same level of disdain for them as I have for most other politicians – All talk and little real action (certainly when it might affect themselves).

  • The decision over whether or not to meet in Strasbourg isn’t the European Parliament’s to make. It’s made by the European Council. Why would you disdain someone or something for not doing something that they’re not capable of doing?

  • The EU is all too often a vehicle for clunking statism 🙂

  • Warren Jeremy 5th Dec '08 - 11:31am

    It’s a good selective eco-rant Jim, but there’s a number of points in response

    First biofuels are a transition technology not a permanent solution. While the green movement and Liberal Democrats are right to complain about ‘bad biofuels’ like Indonesian palm oil, it is not correct to attribute that complaint to Brazilian sugar cane or other first generation fuels with a lower field to wheel CO2 impact than boring old oil. You seem to be arguing that we should stick with burning petrol until we can all plug our cars into the national grid, something that is many years away. Not to mention that more and more oil will come from harder to reach and more environmentally damaging sources like tar sands as easy to reach sources decline.

    Second you argue that these and even second generation biofuels (which are from waste and have no impact on food production) are competitors to electricity generation from biomass which is more environmentally friendly. The implication of this argument is again that you believe electric-powered transport is just around the corner. This is nonsense, the battery technology required for mass electric personal transport is not here yet, sales are tiny and falling due to the downturm. There is no national roadside grid at the moment, no generation capacity to take on transport, or infrastructure of battery exchanges, and the cost of all of these will be staggering. Most car manufacturers are as a result betting on hybrids as we transition from fuel to power.

    Third you imply strongly that this year’s boom in food prices is largely attributable to biofuels. You do not mention that this commodity boom has now collapsed, along with all other commodity markets, or that it has largely been driven by a growth in population and living standards in Asia, or frankly that with collapsing prices the presence of biofuels in the agricultural sector will help reduce those falls and protect some rural workers from the worst of that impact. I regret that might increase the cost of your bagels in Finchley, however creating jobs and stopping poverty is sometimes the price we need to pay for our breakfast.

    Fourth you only briefly mention third generation biofuels from organisms like algae and yeast in passing and your reference to second gen as noted does not mention they are from waste products. Neither of these have an impact on food production. Both of these will benefit and be adopted more quickly from the R&D based on the profits from first generation sales, and development of the biofuels infrastructure to support them. You cannot jump from one technology to another overnight. You again appear to be suggesting that we should keep burning oil until the best biofuels are widely available. How does that help the planet?

    Fifth you talk about indirect land use as though it was an environmental problem only attributable to biofuels. This is baloney. All developments have an indirect land use impact, whether that’s converting derlict land to jatropha cultivation or building social housing on a field. It would be arbitrary and unfair to target one industry with a climate change penalty not attributed to others. Are you arguing for example that two identical fields of sugar cane should pay different carbon taxes because one is used for sugar in coffee and the other is refined for transport to carry the sugar cubes to market? Should a field converted from forest today be subject to a more stringent penalty than one converted 600 years ago? Nor though is there nearly enough research to put an accurate penalty in place even if land use changes could be incorporated into general carbon tax. More research is needed.

    Sixth, you talk about monocultures, deforestation, orangutans and losing biodiversity. I have some sympathy with this line and the environmental impacts of any development needs to be sensitive to what it displaces, whilst particularly developing economies should not become too dependent on one or two crops. But I don’t hear you complaining about the 99% of the palm oil industry used for food. Are you arguing the monkey-murdering peanut-butter manufacturers are ethical, or do you see the tiny biofuels industry as a softer target?

    The Liberal Democrats are right to take a cautious approach to biofuel regulation, demanding high sustainability standards, proper field to wheel assessments of environmental impact and support for research into second and third generation fuels. But the approach you are demanding is hysterically anti-scientific, would condemn us to use undiluted more polluting petrol for at least 20 years, possibly condemn many rural workers to years of grinding poverty, and do very little to encourage improved standards of land use in all industries. If we want to stop bad biofuels use, let’s campaign for better standards, more accountability and transparency, and higher carbon taxes applied fairly across the entire economy, not just one industry.

  • David Allen 5th Dec '08 - 6:20pm

    Asquith: “There are still people who imagine that greens support this stupidity [witch hunting].”

    Greenpeace website from a few centuries ago:

    “Greenpeace today welcomed the Government’s announcement on a mandatory quota for ducking stools as a small step in the right direction”

  • David Evans 6th Dec '08 - 1:53pm


    I would disdain them because they haven’t done anything worth the name. If a motion was passed at the EU stating that the relocation to Strasbourg was an environmental disaster, I think that the European Council would think again. Currently all I see in your excuse for them is a willingness to allow them to pass the buck by pleading impotence. As a committed green member of the Lib Dems, I am not prepared to excuse them in this way.


  • David Allen 6th Dec '08 - 7:54pm


    You’re getting on my nerves now. I don’t speak for Greenpeace, but here is what their website says:

    “As you may have already seen, along with WWF, the RSPB, Friends of the Earth and enoughsenough.org, we’ve placed an advert in several of today’s papers warning the government about the environmental risks of biofuels as an alternative to petrol and diesel.”


    “The government wants to know what you think about biofuels. Tell them we need strict and compulsory controls to make sure they really are green fuels.”

    Now I grant you that falls just short of total opposition, but, why exactly are you so keen to paint them as big supporters of biofuels, when they manifestly are not?

  • Julian, that shows Brown’s shortcomings more than anything else. You may like to remember that, while I am not as libertarian as yourself, I have before stood alongside you in denouncing mindless statism.

    “Greens” have made a long list of mistakes in their time & shouldn’t always be listened to. But it is essentially target-driven governments that have laid emphasis on stupidity like ethanol, not environmentalists.

    Is it not unanimously agreed that New Labour couldn’t care less about the environment? As I said, they are fully part of the debt-based culture. They are the party of buy to let & of credit cards, much more so than Thatcher, who always maintained her Methodist integrity & wouldn’t have stood for that kind of thing.

    As a result, it appealed to them to promote “biofuels”. It was ideal to them. We could carry on doing exactly what we were doing, but instead of oil we’d use something else. Chop down a tree, stick another one up & we’re even. The fact that this isn’t the case doesn’t matter to them. This is why I used the analogy of shoving debt from one credit card to the next: it is how they think.

    New Labour have never been economic liberals. They love big business, but not entrepeneurs or the market. They have never really understood anything but large, controlled organisations, public or private. I could go on & on & start talking about PubCos, but hopefully you’ve got it now, as incoherent as I’ve probably been.

  • Sweet 🙂

  • Warren Jeremy 9th Dec '08 - 5:38pm


    Thanks for researching me. I return the favour and note that you are are a lobbyist for an anti-biofuels NGO in that you are the moderator for the Campaign against Climate Change activist portal, itself linked to the biofuelwatch activist group, both facts you neglected to add to your ‘member in north london’ handle.

    To address your lobbying points though: The EU could not reach agreement on indirect land use change because the science is not there to support inclusion on any meaningful basis. You quote selectively from a tiny handful of studies including the Gallagher report which aggregated available work However what it said on that matter was this:

    “Mechanisms do not yet exist to accurately measure, or to avoid, the effects of indirect land-use change from biofuels. Consequently, the net GHG emissions from current biofuel targets cannot be assessed with certainty”

    That is not to say ILUC doesn’t matter or shouldn’t concern us, it should. But you cannot responsibly legislate on the basis of a few early studies that might be wildly inaccurate or prejudicial against one activity against another. ILUC is not new or an issue exclusive to biofuels, it impacts all development. What for example is the ILUC from converting grassland to a field of solar panels, or building a dock for ships to support wave power stations?

    Your response to that is to claim biofuels are special as they are ‘unnecessary’. You claim this by suggesting they are all universally and unambiguously already worse than petrol. But the point is we really don’t know that and that has not been the conclusion of studies about direct impacts.

    Second you neglect the indirect cost to both the environment and future generations in using petrol today for energy that could be used tomorrow to create useful products or simply left in the ground as a carbon sink. You don’t know and have no basis for believing that biofuels are worse than petrol once you go down the route of speculating about indirect feedback loops. Looking for example at a report: Life Cycle Assessments for Agrofuels (Rughani), that is linked to from the website of your partner lobby, it goes through these loops and concludes at the end

    “Assessments based on emissions, at this point illuminates the irrelevance of such a reductionist analysis.”

    And while I welcome your back-pedalling on instant electric transport alternatives you also sidestep my point that different types of oil have dramatically different impacts on the environment, by asserting that governments should do something about that as well. Sure they could… and one thing they could do is demand equal well to wheel sustainability standards and tracking for conventional fuel. But you haven’t argued for that, you’ve just attacked biofuels as a special case in need of special discriminatory legislation to the benefit of conventional petrol producers.

    You again restate your exaggerated case about food prices and get quite confused on this point. Gallagher agrees with you that there short-term effects on prices that might be significant in some areas… but that in the long-run the overall effect is small. These effects are also true of the spike in other commodities like oil. Those spikes have collapsed. You do not acknowledge this and continue to argue wrongly as though biofuels were in imminent danger of casuing a famine.

    You say the world’s land is not infinite, clearly true. However I see no analysis from you about the appallingly low productivity of much agriculture, particularly in the third world, and what impact competition from biofuels, or food/fuel integration through crop rotations, will have on boosting that productivity and finding solutions to the problems of water and mineral use that you mention. Biofuels, particularly if well regulated, should encourage better land use directly, and indirectly in food production. Preserving bad practice in the name of conservation entrenches poverty.

    Finally on your drug point, I reject your anti-scientific premise. Your criticism of biofuels is based on assumed knowledge of impact without fair comparison based on speculative studies the EU and Gallagher deem insufficient to make meaningful or fair legislation. The subsidies spent today will benefit not only those biofuels we know have less direct impact than petrol, but also future fuels that will have dramatically less impact, through the building of infrastructure and experience. Relying on petrol is not a solution.

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