Biofuels: A false alternative with dire consequences

Oxfam | June 14, 2023

Biofuels are by presented as a promising alternative to petrol or diesel in the transport industry. In a new report funded by the MATS grant, Oxfam once again shows the negative impact of those fuels: deforestation, the disappearance of food crops, increases in food prices and, not in the least, increased greenhouse gas emissions. Anyone who owns a car and refuels in Belgium is indirectly complicit in human rights violations in Peru and Brazil. That is according to a new report released by Oxfam Belgium. It builds on a study from 2021 and shows that the bioethanol contained in petrol in Belgium is not only pernicious for the climate but also violates human rights in the two countries studied

Sugar Cane: An Opaque Chain

Oxfam’s research focuses on the production of bioethanol from sugar cane in Peru and Brazil, which Belgium imported 10 times more of in two years. The sugar cane is converted into bioethanol after a long series of intermediate stages and arrives in Belgium via the Netherlands. During these intermediate stages, the sugar cane passes companies that can be located in Saudi Arabia, Russia, Norway or China. This opaque route makes it almost impossible to map all stages of the production process. It did not stop us from meeting local communities near the Amazon forest who directly feel the effects of this industry. For instance, the research shows that they were forcibly displaced to make way for mega sugar cane plantations. In Brazil, this involves 8.6 million hectares (twice the area of Belgium). Moreover, the working conditions on those plantations are terrible and the massive use of chemicals threatens the health of both the workers and nearby villagers. People who tried to expose these abuses were physically threatened and feared for their lives

Hunger grows, policy makers turn a blind eye

Is our urge to drive cars at all costs justifiable? Because while, according to the UN, 828 million people went hungry in 2021 (46 million more than in 2020), precious farmland is being used to make biofuel. Land on which food crops could be grown. How can the co-existence of these to tendencies be justified?

Despite amended European directives that no longer require the use of biofuels, Belgium insists on this false “solution”. As a result, biofuel is in every kind of petrol in Belgium. By the way, biofuels are unfairly labelled as “zero emissions”, because establishing sugar cane plantations also takes up natural land such as forests and pastures, which otherwise absorb CO2.

Besides having a negative impact on the climate, biofuels also cause an increase in food prices. For example, the FAO (the Food and Agriculture Organisation, a specialised and impartial agency of the United Nations working against hunger) estimates that increased demand for agricultural commodities for biofuel production has caused prices to rise by 105%. In this way, biofuels threaten the food security of those most affected by food insecurity.

Belgium can lead by example

The regulations that the European Union has included in its directives to protect human rights are not strong enough to prevent violations of the rights of local people. Belgium can and should ban all biofuels produced on agricultural land, including those based on sugar cane. The use of 2nd and 3rd generation biofuels can be allowed after a thorough analysis of their impact on the environment and human rights. But if we want to tackle the climate crisis, we must also adapt our mobility and means of transport. Starting with improving and increasing public transport supply and promoting soft mobility.

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