Biofuels are back in the news: today MPs will decide on whether to continue to offer subsidies to crops that can be burned in power stations to create electricity. This problem began with what seemed like a simple and natural solution to our energy problems: plants absorb carbon dioxide as they grow which is balanced by its release when burned to create power. This simplistic idea was grasped by an industry that rapidly developed and sadly persuaded the EU to offer subsidies. The later research demonstrated that many of the biofuels crops actually produce more CO2 than they save.
The other side of the biofuels debate is the land grabbing that is gathering pace in countries that have less power in the global trade system and whose politicians are prepared to see their land be used to feed the lust for energy of those in richer and more powerful societies. Campaign group Grain have accounted for 17 million hectares of land that has been grabbed by global agribusiness to produce fuel crops between 2002 and 2012. Much of this land is in some of the poorest countries in the world; it has been diverted from producing subsistence for local people into growing crops to produce energy for the fuel-hungry West.
Grain, the NGO that supports small farmers across the world, identifies the EU subsidy regime as the source of the problem. The latest proposal sets a target of an energy equivalent of 40 Mtonnes of oil to be provided by biofuels as part of the 20% renewables target to be reached by 2020. While the Green Party welcomes the emphasis on renewables it is keen to ensure that this is not achieved at the cost of the destruction of habitats and livelihoods. Oxfam also express deep concern about this policy, arguing that it will increase global hunger directly, through removing peasants from their land, and indirectly, by increasing the price of staple foods on the global market.
As with so many of the examples of tension between the economy and the environment the problem arises from the scale of operations and the failure of accountability this causes. This is where the proposal for a bioregional economy is so powerful. If regions were aiming to become self-reliant in energy and food production within their boundary, and introduce tariffs for the import of these products, then they could make decisions about balancing the protection of their local environment with their need for energy generation. It is the creation of a global trade in fuel crops and the exploitation of the environments of those for whom we cannot have accountability that is the source of the devastation caused by biofuels.