Originally hailed as the solution not only to Europe’s dependency on energy imports but also as a way to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions from road transport, biofuels are now losing their lustre.
Inadequate carbon accounting (which means failing to take into account the carbon effects of Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC)) results in Europe consuming biofuels that are often more damaging to the climate than the fossil fuels they are meant to replace.
But maybe worse still, the diversion of agricultural land from food production to producing energy crops has pushed up food prices and exacerbated global hunger.
Even as the European Union introduced its Renewable Energy Directive in 2009, policy makers were arguing about whether biofuels were actually better for climate change than fossil fuels.
Since then, there has been extensive political and scientific wrangling about how to account for the extra carbon emissions resulting from ILUC, (the displacement of agricultural production when land that used to produce food is converted to produce biofuels.)
According to figures by the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP), the EU’s plans for biofuels will result in the conversion of up to 69 000 square kilometres (km2) of land to agricultural use due to ILUC, putting forests, other natural ecosystems, and poor communities at risk.
Converting this area of land will mean a one-off release of 876 to 1459 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent from vegetation and soil. This would be like adding an extra 12 to 26 million cars to Europe’s roads by 2020.
However, the true scandal of biofuels is their effect on food security and land rights. New ActionAid research shows how the amount of food crops consumed as fuel by G8 countries annually could have fed more than 441 million people for a year.
That’s more than seven times the population of the UK and roughly half the number of people who currently go hungry, estimated by the UN at 870 million globally.
A telling indication of the extent to which crop production within the EU itself is being diverted to biofuels is the fact that 65% of all EU vegetable oil now goes to biofuels. By 2020 EU biofuel targets could push up the agricultural price of vegetable oils by as much as 36%, cereals by as much as 22% and oilseeds by as much as 20%.
Food for petrol
However, it is not only crop production within Europe that is being diverted to produce biofuels. According to an ActionAid database of European biofuel company activities in Africa, there are currently 98 documented biofuel projects covering 6 million hectares.
That is the equivalent of using half the area of England to grow crops which will end up as fuel in our petrol tanks. The biggest investors of biofuels in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) are from the UK (30 projects), Italy (18) and Germany (8).
None of this comes for free.
Biofuels consumption costs UK motorists more than an extra billion pounds per year in increased fuel costs compared to not adding them to the fuel mix. In 2013, it was revealed that – at a time of austerity and budget deficits – EU taxpayers were paying between €9.3-10.7 billion per year in subsidies to prop up the biofuels industry.
Time for change
ActionAid, along with many other development and environmental charities, scientists and increasingly, the private sector, are highly critical of continuing with current misguided biofuels policies.
What may have seemed like a good idea on paper a few years ago is turning out to be a costly, greenhouse gas-releasing, hunger- and land grabs-causing disaster.
Our politicians must now have the guts to do a U-turn and turn their attention elsewhere in the legitimate search for renewable energies that will decrease greenhouse gases and create green jobs in the UK and elsewhere.
But for now, the UK government must put an end to the use of food as fuel here in the UK, and call for their partners in Europe and the G8 to do the same.
Anders Dahlbeck is a Policy Advisor at ActionAid UK. Follow him on Twitter @AndersActionAid