Replacing fossil fuels with biofuels is, on the surface, an attractive idea. Rather than dig fossil carbon (oil, coal, gas) out of the ground, why not recycle the carbon already in the atmosphere? Plants use solar energy to incorporate carbon into their biomass; we can then burn them and cycle the carbon back into the atmosphere where the plants got it. No new carbon is released.
There is a dark side to this glittering promise, though. Too often, the quest to turn plants into fuel replicates or exceeds the worst effects of other extractive technologies. For example, in Brazil's Cerrado region, a massive land grab is underway to convert diverse ecosystems and locally sustaining agricultural land into monoculture eucalyptus tree farms. To do that, non-deeded public land (the commons) that has been farmed by families for generations is being appropriated and privatised by agribusinesses.
Huge logging operations are devastating the Carolina swamp forests, which are among the world's most biodiverse temperate forests and home to the only wild population of Venus fly traps and other carnivorous plants. The forests are being cut down to make wood pellets, some of which are shipped to the UK to feed the Drax electrical generation facility.
In Indonesia, native forests and peatlands are being destroyed to make room for palm oil plantations to produce biodiesel – often, again, through land grabs at the expense of local farmers. Palm oil plantations are also spreading in Africa.
US corn ethanol production has resulted in the vast expansion of cornfields into conservation land, untouched prairie land, and wetlands. Increasing amounts of chemical fertilisers and pesticides contaminate water supplies, and erosion has accelerated as fragile land is planted with corn.
OK, so biofuel production can be ecologically catastrophic, but at least it is carbon neutral, right? Well, not really. For one thing, for clearcut forests to fully regenerate takes decades or even centuries, resulting in a CO2 increase over the next 50 years. Secondly, deforestation often results in soil erosion and the release of carbon from formerly stable soil structures. Thirdly, when biofuel is produced from corn or sugar cane plantations, these have less embedded carbon than a mature forest would.
Clearly, current biofuel practices have to stop. While there may be a legitimate role for small-scale production of biofuels, industrial-scale operations are revealing themselves to be just as ecologically disruptive as fossil fuels and just as socially disruptive as other kinds of monocropping. Appalled by what is happening, an anti-biofuels movement is growing – for example, a protest against the Drax plant, which is at the forefront of Britain's push toward biofuels, took place yesterday in London.
Companies such as Drax, Enviva (the woodchip mill operator in North Carolina) or Suzano (the company involved with eucalyptus plantations) benefit from government subsidies and other policies designed to promote biofuels; all three see themselves as green corporate citizens.
Are they operating a cynical public relations campaign and, motivated by sheer greed, putting a green facade over practices they know to be destructive? Many activists seem to think so, but the truth may be more complicated. They might genuinely believe their rhetoric. Even when they make statements to the effect that "we only burn forest wastes and residues", which critics allege is not the case, they may live in a narrative that says "we are working to improve our practices." As long as they can plausibly argue that they are developing a carbon-neutral energy source, they can maintain an image (to themselves and to others) as environmental do-gooders.
The situation with biofuels highlights the danger of making greenhouse gas reduction our number one environmental priority. The devastating effects of industrial biofuel production, and the pollution generated by woodchip-fired power plants – which are dirtier than coal in terms of nitrogen oxides, VOCs, particulates and carbon monoxide – illustrates that much harm can be justified (albeit sometimes spuriously) on CO2 grounds.
Arguments such as "we should oppose razing the forests to plant monocrop tree farms because they actually don't help with CO2" carry the implication that if they did help with CO2, such practices would be OK. More generally, the greenhouse gas argument buys into a utilitarian logic that values forests, oceans and rivers for some instrumental end, and not in their own right as living beings. This is a primary enabling attitude behind our society's destruction of nature. Arguments that implicitly validate the idea that nature is to be valued only as a means to an end (for example, as a "resource") do not touch the deep love and care we need to access, if we are to have the courage to embark on fundamental systemic change.
Proponents of biofuels argue that the current problems can be fixed, and that the issue of greenhouse gases trumps other environmental issues. But even if biofuels could offer a carbon-neutral fuel source, we need to reflect on the kind of planet we want to live on. Do we want a world where the wild places are mostly gone, converted to biofuel plantations? Do we want a world in which nature exists just to burn?
We don't, but that is fundamentally how our economic system, in which companies like Drax are embedded, sees nature. Quite possibly, the perverse consequences of what at first blush seems like a great idea are the inevitable results of seeing nature as a resource. As long as that doesn't change, we will continue to do more harm even while trying to do good.