Pressure mounts against EU biofuel targets

Down to Earth No. 72 March 2007

NGOs are campaigning against the adoption by the European Union of mandatory biofuel targets, a move that will prompt the further expansion of oil palm plantations in Indonesia, more appropriation of indigenous lands, more forest loss, and, ironically, higher carbon emissions.

Hundreds of NGOs worldwide, and thousands of individuals have called on European Union (EU) politicians to say 'no' to biofuel targets when they decide on the issue in early March. As well as oil palm, biofuel crops include soya, sugarcane and maize.

In an open letter to the EU and its citizens, the NGOs said that implementing the targets "means that the EU will risk breaching its international commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect biodiversity and human rights; because…the proposed targets will amongst other things promote crops with poor greenhouse gas balances, trigger deforestation and loss of biodiversity and exacerbate local land use conflicts."

The groups argue that EU ministers should not adopt the biofuel targets because:

  • biofuel targets without much stronger commitments to reduce consumption are counter-productive: Any targets relating to energy must first be directed towards reducing overall energy use, and improving energy efficiency. Instead of addressing Europe's excessive consumption, the Commission proposes a biofuels target as a percentage of the EU´s fast growing and as yet unlimited transport fuel consumption. This approach must be rejected as counterproductive. The fact that the European Commission's 'Energy Package' only proposes targets for biofuels for transport but not for other alternative energies is indicative of a seriously flawed policy approach to addressing greenhouse gas emissions.
  • targets will negatively impact the Global South: The EU is suggesting that much of the biofuel crop will have to be produced in the global South and exported to Europe. Although presented as an opportunity for Southern economies, evidence suggests that monoculture crops for biofuel such as oil palm, soya, sugarcane and maize lead to increased destruction of biodiversity and rural livelihoods and further erosion of food security, with serious impacts on water, soil, and regional climate patterns. Several statements already made by civil society organisations from the South express deep concern and call for a rejection of the EU biofuel plans.
  • There is a risk of increased climate impacts of biofuels: biofuel is arguably the least desirable alternative energy form for which the EU could set a target. The production of biofuel crops uses scarce resources such as fresh water and productive land and in most crops used today, the greenhouse gas savings are marginal at best in comparison to fossil fuels. A thorough understanding of the emissions produced throughout the chain from land conversion to production, refining and use of biofuels is essential to ensure biofuel use will truly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Not only is deforestation itself a major cause of CO2 emissions, but biodiesel from South East Asian palm oil (where most world palm oil currently originates), can be expected to cause between two and eight times as much CO2 emissions from damage to peat as the CO2 emissions from the mineral diesel it replaces (by conservative estimates, and according to the most recent science). These emissions make it less likely for the EU to meet their commitment of achieving the climate target of no more than 2°C change in average global temperature. Furthermore, research already suggests that the carbon balance of some biofuel crops may actually be negative when taking the complete process into account. Further study is thus needed before setting biofuel targets.
  • biofuels will increase pressure on world food supplies and further erode food sovereignty: Price increases for some biofuel crops that are also staple foods will exacerbate not only deforestation, but also put food security at risk. Since biofuel targets in the EU would promote the production of biomass in the global South, the EU could be responsible for reducing the area of land devoted to food production, so eroding local and international food security and sovereignty and causing food shortages.
  • There will be more human rights violations related to monoculture expansion: Serious human rights abuses have been reported from sugar cane, palm oil and soy plantations in Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Colombia and South-East Asia. These include slavery, very poor working conditions and low wages, violent land conflicts, death and health crises due to the use of agrochemicals and deforestation.
  • Targets will fuel GM expansion: The genetic engineering sector of the biotechnology industry is promoting biofuels to gain access to a new market. The GM varieties of several crops now used as biofuel crops (eg: maize, soya, oilseed rape) have met strong resistance to their use as food, especially in Europe. The industry hopes that by promoting them as biofuels, these crops will gain acceptance. However, the problems associated with GM, including contamination, would not be addressed. The introduction of GM crops in the South has had a massive impact on farming methods, human rights and the environment. An EU target will give support to the GM industry to expand still further.
  • If the EU applies incentives and subsidies to biofuels, these will further intensify all the pressures:. They will also distort markets and further undermine food production. They should not be applied while there is still so much argument about the real contribution biofuels can make to energy use and climate. Finally, incentives for biofuels contradict the pro-poor strategies of the Millennium Development Goals and disregard the 2010 Target agreed on at the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg by adding a severe additional driver of biodiversity loss.
  • There is no credible certification process available at this point: Sustainability certification is being proposed as a way of addressing many of the problems outlined above. However, the European Commission energy package does not provide clarity on whether a certification scheme for biofuels will be introduced, and if so, whether it would be voluntary or mandatory. Previous certification initiatives suggest that certification processes by themselves cannot address most of the environmental and social 'problems', particularly in countries with poor human rights records or weak enforcement of environmental and labour legislation. The Round Table on Responsible Soy (RSS), a voluntary certification process led by some large environmental NGO's and industry, has run into great controversy with civil society organisations and small farmers' movements in Latin America and is widely perceived as acting against their interests. The Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has yet to agree on procedures for verifying adherence to its standards and some of the RSPO industry members continue to destroy large areas of rainforest and openly bid for concessions which contravene RSPO principles, such as Wilmar International's bid for Bugala Island, Uganda, or PT SMART's plans for palm oil expansion in Indonesia. At present, no credible certification process leading to strong and mandatory standards, with full involvement of affected groups in producer countries, is available.

The letter ends:
"We therefore call on the Member States to reject the biofuel target for transport and halt all other incentives for biofuel production which could encourage in any way the use of biofuels linked to the problems described above. Instead, the focus should be on drastic reduction of energy use and support for genuinely sustainable renewables."

(For the full open letter, dated 31 January 2007, see


Sawit Watch protests EU biofuel imports

Indonesia's NGO network on oil palm, Sawit Watch, has written to the EU to raise its concern over the promotion of biofuels as an alternative to fossil fuels. In an open letter dated 26 January 2007, the group argues that the disproportionate use of biofuels "is one of the new driving forces of large-scale and monoculture oil palm plantation expansion that contributes to global warming, social conflicts and rights abuses in producing countries, particularly Indonesia."

According to Sawit Watch, up to 2006, there were 360 conflicts related to oil palm, a situation that will get worse if the EU biofuels policy is put in place. The group says that the Indonesian government and the Association of Indonesian Palm Oil Growers (GAPKI), prompted by high European demand from both biodiesel and food markets, have agreed to a lot 3 million hectares of land for oil palm plantations for biodiesel. The implications of this, argues Sawit Watch, are that millions of hectares of land will be under the control of palm oil conglomerates and it is therefore unavoidable that "as a consequence of Europe's biofuels policy, the land rights of indigenous peoples and local communities will be relinquished further…" The letter calls on the EU to declare a commitment to global justice and for markets, governments and companies to be made accountable. "Development without justice is not development: it is exploitation!"

(Open letter from Sawit Watch 29/Jan/07)


Indonesia presses on with biofuel development

Indonesia is hoping to become one of the world's biggest biofuel producers. As well as devoting a percentage of current palm oil output for the biofuel industry, the government plans to develop a huge area of oil palm, sugarcane, jatophra and cassava plantations. The government has allocated 5.25 million hectares of 'idle' land for growing the crops, almost all of which (5.06 million ha) is land officially under the control of the forestry department, spread over 13 provinces. About 1.5 million hectares will be used each for oil palm, cassava and jatophra, and about 0.75 million ha for sugarcane.

Deda Mardiko of the forestry ministry, told the Jakarta Post in February that none of the areas allocated for oil palm were in protected forests and that the ministry was working with the national land agency, plus the agriculture and home ministries to check whether the areas are located in forests or not. The official warned that anyone clearing land in a protected area would be charged with illegal logging.

Director of research and development at the energy and mineral resources ministry, Nenny Sri Utama, said that international NGO concerns over oil palm for biofuel were groundless and confirmed that the biofuel development plan would go ahead as planned, despite the criticism.

Ratna Ariati, the forestry ministry's director of renewable energy, said she understood the NGOs' concerns, but stressed that the government would abide by environmental protection principles, adding "We are doing it for the sake of the environment. It would be a nonsense if we were to destroy the forests in the process."

A major problem with the plan lies in the use of 'idle' lands and who decides what this means and how it is applied in the field. In the past, using 'idle' or 'unproductive' land has been a byword for taking over lands that are far from unproductive, much of it belonging to indigenous peoples whose customary rights over lands and resources are not adequately recognised under Indonesian law. Setting ambitious targets for the use of such land spells more trouble for rural communities already marginalised by large-scale forest destruction at the hands of logging and plantation companies, and the extractive industries (see also below for related news on agrarian reform).

(Source: Jakarta Post 6/Feb/07. See also DTE 71 for more on biofuel development in Indonesia and developments internationally.)