Sat, Aug 18, 2012 - Page 9 News List

Biofuels pose real risks to humanity

Sports stars appearing at No. 10 Downing Street will not change a simple fact: People are starving because of the West’s thirst for biofuels

By George Monbiot  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Constance Chou

I do not blame Mo Farah, Pele and Haile Gebrselassie, who lined up, all hugs and smiles, outside Downing Street for a photocall at British Prime Minister David Cameron’s hunger summit. Perhaps they were unaware of the way in which they were being used to promote Cameron’s corporate and paternalistic approach to overseas aid. Perhaps they were also unaware of the crime against humanity over which he presides. Perhaps Cameron himself is unaware of it.

You should by now have heard about the famine developing in the Sahel region of west Africa. Poor harvests and high food prices threaten the lives of some 18 million people. The global price of food is likely to still rise further, as a result of low crop yields in the US, caused by the worst drought in 50 years. World cereal prices, in response to this disaster, climbed 17 percent last month. We have been cautious about attributing such events to climate change: perhaps too cautious. A new paper by James Hansen, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, shows that there has been a sharp increase in the frequency of extremely hot summers. Between 1951 and 1980 these events affected between 0.1 and 0.2 percent of the world’s land surface each year. Now, on average, they affect 10 percent. Hansen explains that “the odds that natural variability created these extremes are minuscule, vanishingly small.” Both the droughts in the Sahel and the US crop failures are likely to be the result of climate change.

However, this is not the only sense in which the rich world’s use of fuel is causing the poor to starve. In the UK, in the rest of the EU and in the US, governments have chosen to deploy a cure as bad as the disease. Despite overwhelming evidence of the harm their policy is causing, none of them will change course.

Biofuels are the means by which governments in the rich world avoid hard choices. Rather than raise fuel economy standards as far as technology allows, rather than promoting a shift from driving to public transport, walking and cycling, rather than insisting on better town planning to reduce the need to travel, they have chosen to exchange our wild overconsumption of petroleum for the wild overconsumption of fuel made from crops. No one has to drive less or make a better car: everything remains the same except the source of fuel. The result is a competition between the world’s richest and poorest consumers, a contest between overconsumption and survival.

There was never any doubt about which side would win.

I have been banging on about this since 2004, and everything I warned of then has happened. The US and the EU have both set targets and created generous financial incentives for the use of biofuels. The results have been a disaster for people and the planet.

Already, 40 percent of US corn (maize) production is used to feed cars. The proportion will rise this year as a result of the smaller harvest.

Though the market for biodiesel is largely confined to the EU, it has already captured 7 percent of the world’s output of vegetable oil. The European Commission admits that its target (10 percent of transport fuels by 2020) will raise world cereal prices by between 3 percent and 6 percent. Oxfam estimates that with every 1 percent increase in the price of food, another 16 million people go hungry.

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