UK environmentalist George Monbiot explains why it is so important for rich-world governments to fix their misguided “Green” policies. The 40% of the US corn crop gobbled up in US-subsidized ethanol is a horrible example of “feel good” policy that does great harm. The only “good” produced by that policy is reelection for corn-state politicians, and perhaps presidents.
Already, 40% of US corn (maize) production is used to feed cars(6). The proportion will rise this year as a result of the smaller harvest. Though the market for biodiesel is largely confined to the European Union, it has already captured seven per cent of the world’s output of vegetable oil(7). The European Commission admits that its target (10% of transport fuels by 2020) will raise world cereal prices by between 3 and 6%(8). Oxfam estimates that with every 1% increase in the price of food, another 16 million people go hungry(9).
By 2021, the OECD says, 14% of the world’s maize and other coarse grains, 16% of its vegetable oil and 34% of its sugarcane will be used to make people in the gas guzzling nations feel better about themselves(10). The demand for biofuel will be met, it reports, partly through an increase in production; partly through a “reduction in human consumption.”(11) The poor will starve so that the rich can drive.
The rich world’s demand for biofuels is already causing a global land grab. ActionAid estimates that European companies have now seized five million hectares of farmland – an area the size of Denmark – in developing countries for industrial biofuel production(12). Small farmers, growing food for themselves and local markets, have been thrown off their land and destituted. Tropical forests, savannahs and grasslands have been cleared to plant what the industry still calls “green fuels”.
When the impacts of land clearance and the use of nitrogen fertilisers are taken into account, biofuels produce more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels do(13,14,15). The UK, which claims that half the biofuel sold here meets its sustainability criteria, solves this problem by excluding the greenhouse gas emissions caused by changes in land use(16). Its sustainability criteria are, as a result, worthless.
Even second generation biofuels, made from crop wastes or wood, are an environmental disaster, either extending the cultivated area or removing the straw and stovers which protect the soil from erosion and keep carbon and nutrients in the ground. The combination of first and second generation biofuels – encouraging farmers to plough up grasslands and to leave the soil bare – and hot summers could create the perfect conditions for a new dust bowl.
Our government knows all this. One of its own studies shows that if the European Union stopped producing biofuels, the amount of vegetable oils it exported to world markets would rise by 20% and the amount of wheat by 33%, reducing world prices(17).