By Stephen Leahy
BONN, Jun 5 (Tierramérica) – The adoption of international standards for the sustainable production of biofuels emerged as a controversial approach at the recent United Nations conference on biodiversity here.
The still-vague proposals suggest that they would “promote the sustainable production, conversion, use, and trade of biofuels”, and revolve around reducing “perverse incentives” like farm subsidies in Europe and the United States.
“In 33 years of ethanol production, Brazil has never bothered to set up sustainability standards,” said Camila Moreno, a researcher with the Brazilian environmental group Terra de Direitos.
Also known as agro-fuels, made from crops like maize, sugarcane and soybeans, they face criticism from those who blame them for the current global food crisis.
The biofuel market is also accused of aggravating the destruction of ecosystems by pushing other crops to cut down forests and expand the farming frontier. Indeed, halting the growing tide of extinctions of plant and animals species was the focus of the Bonn meeting.
“The Convention on Biological Diversity can make a contribution by ensuring biofuels are ecological sustainable,” Jochen Flasbarth, from Germany’s Environment Ministry and one of the delegates to the 9th Conference of Parties to the Convention (May 19-30), told Tierramérica.
Some countries at the meeting did not want to even discuss the issue, but the current president of Convention, Sigmar Gabriel, the German Minister of the Environment, insisted the issue be debated, according to Flasbarth.
Rather than wait for strict sustainability criteria to be developed, some environmental groups insist on an end to government subsidies, tax exemptions and biofuel consumption quotas.
Such measures are needed to make sure that agrofuel production does not threaten forests and their biodiversity in countries such as Indonesia and Brazil, said Eric Darier, Greenpeace agriculture campaigner in Bonn.
Others say that large scale monoculture of biofuels can never be sustainable: “In 33 years of ethanol production, Brazil has never bothered to set up sustainability standards,” said Camila Moreno, a researcher with the Brazilian environmental group Terra de Direitos.
At the 3rd National Environmental Conference held in early May in Brasilia, the then-chief of the environment portfolio, Marina Silva, said that to expand biofuel production, Brazil has 50 million cultivable hectares in disuse, making it unnecessary “to cut down any tree in any part of the country.”
Biofuel crops could occupy five percent of all of Brazil’s agricultural land by the end of the decade.
While Brazil’s biofuel industry offers environmental benefits in terms of reduced greenhouse gas emissions, it is a threat to forests, WWF Brazil (Worldwide Fund for Nature) says in a new report. Controversially, the environmental group’s report says that sugarcane-based ethanol has little impact on food production and is not resulting in deforestation in the Amazon.
Like Moreno of Terra de Direitos, Christian Hey of the German Advisory Council on the Environment says that biofuels need large amounts of land and cannot avoid having an impact on existing foodlands, grasslands and forests.
“Standards and certifications can’t stop agribusiness from driving small-scale farmers into grasslands and forests,” says Stefan Bringezu, director of the German think-tank Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy.
Rich countries want greener fuels for their cars. Poor countries want high-value exports and to reduce their dependence on costly oil imports — the Convention on Biological Diversity is attempting to chart a course reconciling these competing demands.
In 2007 the European Union set a mandatory target for biofuels to make up 10 percent of all its transport fuels by 2020 as part of its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
That commitment resulted in the expansion of biofuel production in many developing countries. Now the EU is under pressure to back away from that target, mainly over worries that biofuels are partly responsible for the food crisis.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel attempted to break the deadlock by telling environment ministers from nearly 100 nations attending the crucial final days of the conference that the Convention “needs to established guidelines to avoid negative consequences of using biomass energy.”
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the only other national leader at the conference, failed to mention biofuels in his speech, preferring instead to show scenic pictures of Canada’s landscape.
Canada — which has very little biofuel production — and Brazil have refused throughout the negotiations to cooperate with establishing any standards. The Brazilian delegations said that all forms of energy should be subject to sustainability standards.
Brazil is far more concerned about market access than sustainability, and Canada seems to be acting on behalf of the United States, environmentalists say.
For full story, see Green Standards Proposed for Biofuel Production
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