Biofuels: Only if we avoid burning food says Oxfam

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Global biofuel policies are not solving the climate or fuel crises but are instead contributing to food insecurity and inflation, hitting poor people hardest, according to a new report by international agency Oxfam. In today’s report ” Another Inconvenient Truth”, Oxfam calculates that rich country biofuel policies have dragged more than 30 million people into poverty, according to evidence that biofuels have already contributed up to 30% to the global rise in food prices.

“With New Zealand on the cusp of biofuels requirements, we must be aware that biofuel policies in the US and EU are already helping to accelerate climate change and deepen poverty and hunger. It’s important that we fix the structure of our biofuels bill before forging ahead with targets that are already demonstrating unacceptable harm to the world’s poorest people ,” said Oxfam New Zealand Executive Director Barry Coates.

While New Zealand does have the capacity to produce biofuels domestically from non-food sources, it’s likely that we would have to import biofuel in order to meet projected targets. It is essential that there is adequate regulation to ensure that these imported fuels do not increase food prices, encourage clear-cutting of old growth forests or displace local people. This is not adequately addressed in the biofuels bill as it stands. A requirement that oil companies report on biofuels country of origin is simply not enough.

“If you drive up to a petrol station and there is a sign over the biofuel mix that says ‘Sourced from Indonesia’, does it tell you that indigenous people in Borneo have just lost their forest home? Clearly not,” said Coates. “Oxfam supports having a biofuels bill, but we need to sort out the sustainability criteria first and then have a review period to make sure the framework is adequate at protecting both the environment and people,” he added.

Palm oil plantations have already changed the face of Southeast Asia, spelling disaster for forest-dwelling people and destroying hugely important carbon sinks in the process. New Zealand could import biofuels in a way that is both sustainable and beneficial for local communities. There is potential in Pacific resources such as sugarcane and coconut oil, but the economic, social and environmental pitfalls of biofuels as they are currently being produced are considerable. 

In developing countries, Oxfam says that biofuels could provide a sustainable energy alternative for poor people in marginalized areas - but countries should proceed with caution. In Mali for example, bioenergy projects provide clean renewable energy sources to poor women and men in rural areas. But, as the main plank of a policy to substitute transport fuel by rich nations, biofuels are failing.

The report author, Oxfam’s biofuel policy adviser Rob Bailey , says that biofuels will not address rich countries’ need for fuel security. “Even if the entire world’s supply of grains and sugars were converted into ethanol tomorrow - in the process giving us all even less to eat - we would only be able to replace 40% of our petrol and diesel consumption,” Bailey said. “Rich country governments should not use biofuels as an excuse to avoid urgent decisions about how to reduce their unfettered demand for petrol and diesel,” he said.

New Zealand is falling behind on its Kyoto obligations, which is damaging our credibility. Now is the time to get serious about tackling our own consumption and emissions in order to have an influential seat at the table for upcoming international climate change negotiations.

“We have a chance to become a global leader in saying a definitive no to harmful forms of biofuel production and in becoming more efficient with our fuel use,” said Coates. “And that’s exactly what we should be doing,” he added.

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