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ENVIRONMENT: Push for Biofuels Losing Energy

David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Sep 22 2008 (IPS) - The European Union’s only directly elected body has urged that a contentious target for using agricultural crops to meet one-tenth of the bloc’s transport demands should be reduced.

Since leaders of the EU’s 27 governments formally set an objective last year that biofuels should account for 10 percent of all fuel used by cars, trucks and buses on the Union’s roads by 2020, it has encountered a storm of protest from environmentalists and human rights activists. Even the EU’s in-house advisers on the environment and scientific research have questioned the wisdom of the target – officially aimed at tackling climate change – at a time when the surge in food prices encountered in many parts of the world over recent months has been widely blamed on the dramatic increase in the use of farmland to produce fuel.

Although the governments have so far declined to lower the level of their ambition, members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted Sep. 11 that an alternative target of 5 percent by 2015 should be established. A major review on the impact of biofuels on human welfare and the environment would then have to be conducted before any further targets are agreed.

Claude Turmes, a Luxembourg MEP and a veteran campaigner on issues of clean energy, described the vote as “a major breakaway from the craziness of the rush into agrofuels.”

He pointed out that based on current trends, nearly 6 percent of the EU’s transport would be powered by biofuels within two years in any event, without their production being subject to any ecological or social criteria. The parliament, he noted, is now insisting “we will have responsible policies” before another growth in biofuel use occurs.

“The vote by the European Parliament recognises the serious problems associated with the large-scale use of biofuels,” said Adrian Bebb, spokesman for the environment group Friends of the Earth. “This is a welcome step in the right direction but much still needs to be done. Using crops to feed cars is a false solution to our climate problems and could lead to the irreversible loss of wildlife, and misery for millions of people in the South.”

A new report by Friends of the Earth examines the effects of rising biofuel production in Latin America, much of which is then sold to Europe. Large-scale deforestation in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Uruguay has been attributed to trees on existing farmland being cleared to make way for biofuel plantations, thereby harming the habitats of many endangered species.

One result is that food for fuel is often being grown on previously unused land, with pesticides and chemical fertilisers causing serious damage to the soil. Working conditions on biofuel plantations are frequently oppressive, with the use of child labour reported in some instances.

Olivier De Schutter, United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, has argued that evidence is mounting on how biofuels are consuming large proportions of land and water. He contends that biofuels do not appear to offer an ecologically sound alternative to oil, gas and coal. With the exception of sugarcane in Brazil, few examples can be cited of food crops for biofuels yielding environmental gains, he added.

Flavio Valente, secretary-general of the FoodFirst Information and Action Network (FIAN), has suggested that the EU’s support for biofuel production is at loggerheads with its stated desire to protect and promote human rights throughout the world, including the right to be free from hunger. “Who do you feed first: cars and trucks, or people?” he asked.

The right to food is enshrined in the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Later this year, the UN’s general assembly is expected to formally approve a protocol to that covenant that would allow individuals to begin proceedings against governments accused of violating economic and social rights.

Catarina de Albuquerque, a Portuguese lawyer who chaired a UN working group on these issues, said it is “essential that those countries who regard themselves as human rights models – I’m thinking here of European states – ratify the protocol.”

She pointed out that a number of EU countries, including Britain, Ireland, the Netherlands and Denmark, have not been supportive of it. She also suggested that it is wrong to focus solely on such rights as freedom of speech, while ignoring the right to be free of want.

“The time has come to give strong support to the protocol and to defend these rights as energetically as you defend civil and political rights,” she said. “What is at stake here is the credibility of economic, social and cultural rights.”

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