Biofuels Scarce on Bali Menu

NUSA DUA, Bali, Indonesia - Green groups hoping that the social and environmental cost of biofuels would get an airing at the United Nations climate change conference here are a disappointed lot.

The Dec. 3-14 conference has given only marginal attention to biofuels during the formal sessions -- involving government officials and ministers from some 180 countries -- where a blueprint is being shaped to strike a balance between economic growth and environment protection.

"There has not been a push during the negotiations for biofuels," says Tony Juniper, executive director of the British branch of Friends of the Earth (FoE), a global green lobby. "It had a very low profile on the agenda here. There were only some areas where it did creep in, such as the discussions on forestry and land use."

Such silence will only be welcome news for those driving the demand for biofuels, he explained to IPS. "The rapidly expanding agro-fuel market does not need an agreement from Bali to shape its course. But it does not mean that individual governments cannot do anything; they can negotiate controls."

"Biofuels have big implications for land rights, food security, biodiversity and even climate change," he added, echoing the statement that was released by the international office of FoE on the eve of the conference, which argued that "biofuels must not be promoted as a solution to climate change."

Other international environmental networks like The World Conservation Union (or IUCN) confirmed the marginal status of the biofuel debate by the activities they organized in Bali. IUCN hosted 10 events to raise the profile of the global implications of biofuel at a hotel a short distance from the main conference venue, where non-governmental organizations voiced their views on climate change. A discussion on Thursday evening was titled: 'Dispelling the myths: biofuels for climate change mitigation and adaptation.'

"We are concerned about the pressure biofuel production is placing on the world's food reserves. If you produce biofuel with food crops like corn, you won't have it to meet food demand," Jeff McNeely, chief scientist of IUCN said in an interview. "The grain reserves of the world today are the lowest they have been in the last 10 to 15 years."

Similar views were expressed by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in pamphlets made available at the U.N. agency's display booth in the main conference venue. "Food security (availability and accessibility) of the poor may be compromised by increased demand for energy crops," it cautioned.

Currently, the biofuel industry is fed by corn, wheat, sugarcane and palm oil, among other crops. Close to 5,000 lt of biofuel can be extracted from one hectare of corn, 6,000 lt from a hectare of sugarcane and 4,500 lt from a hectare of palm oil, said Barbara Bramble of the National Wildlife Federation during the IUCN-hosted discussion.

The demand for biofuels on the international market has spiked in the wake of industrial nations being compelled to reduce their greenhouse gas (GhG) emissions under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. A bulk of these heat-trapping gases are produced by the oil and fossil fuels used in the industrialized world to run their economies and for transport.

Conference-host Indonesia is very much in the center of this trend, given that large areas of its peatland forests, that have carbon-absorbing features, are being felled for palm oil plantations that feed the biofuel market. Earlier this year, Jakarta unveiled plans to convert 20 million ha of this archipelago's tropical forest into palm oil plantations.

"The opening of land for bio-energy has two dimensions for Indonesia," says Fitrian Ardiansyah, program director of climate and energy at the Indonesia office of the WWF. "Palm oil exports have contributed to the income level of the country, but it has come with many negative impacts."

And the main drivers of this demand, the European Union (EU), has admitted that a more sustainable policy is needed to meet a 2010 target of having 5.7 percent of its transport fuel from green sources. "The negative impacts should be avoided," said the Netherlands' environment minister Jacqueline Cramer. "When we use biofuel for our cars, we might be destroying biodiversity and have negative impacts on food production and social and economic development."

Consequently, the EU is drafting plans for biofuels to be used with a "sustainable development criteria," she added. It would take into account the competition between crops for food and for biofuel, protect biodiversity and prevent more GhGs from being emitted as a result of forests being cut down.

The EU painted itself into this corner because the politicians who made the initial decision "did not carefully consider the sources of this fuel," says McNeely of IUCN. "It cannot meet the 2010 target through domestic biofuels so it was compelled to start importing."

To one NGO in Bali, this reality points to a paradox of the international climate change treaty, the Framework Convention on Climate Change, to which the Kyoto Protocol was added to set time-bound targets for the industrial nations to reduce their GhGs. In trying to resolve the pressing problem of a rapidly heating planet, the protocol has given rise to another problem, states the Global Forest Coalition.

"It has become clear over the last year that agrofuel expansion has been one of the main factors in triggering a worldwide boom in agriculture commodity prices that is leading to a rapid expansion of agriculture monocultures into tropical forests and other ecosystems," it added.

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