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Synthesis/Regeneration 41   (Fall 2006)

Biofuels: An Ecological Alternative?


Countries which have ratified the Kyoto Protocol have to fulfill certain obligations in relation to CO2 emissions. In other international forums they have committed to replace 20% of gasoline and diesel with sustainable sources by the year 2020. A series of industries has appeared — consultants and specialized firms working to convert these obligations into business.

What is foreseen for the future is that even though fossil fuels will slowly be replaced by other forms of energy the oil industry will continue to play a central role in their substitution, and in the use of the infrastructure that they have today with some adaptations, for example in the distribution of fuels for vehicles and other forms of transport.

Alternatives for motorized transport are natural gas, hydrogen, biofuels and liquid gas. Biofuels include ethanol and biodiesel that are obtained from conventional agricultural crops such as sugar cane, cereals and oilseeds.


Various European countries have established goals that increasingly use biofuels as a substitute for gasoline and diesel. The European Union has decreed that by the year 2010, 6% of fuels will be biofuels, and hopes that by 2020 that will increase to 8%. However, it is unlikely that Europe will dedicate its soils to the growth of these types of crops.

…it is unlikely that Europe will dedicate its soils to the growth of these types of crops.

In this new world scenario, third world countries are playing an important role: they will provide the land, their fertility and cheap labor and will retain all the environmental effects caused by large plantations from which the biofuels are derived and by refining. In the same manner as occurs with the oil industry, the increasing European demand for biofuels means that countries of the third world become the sources of supply of this new industry. In effect, currently the main supplier of bioethanol to the United Kingdom is Brazil.

Companies dedicated to the business of biodiesel have placed their sights on Latin American, African, Asian and Pacific countries, since they consider that these countries can obtain raw material at competitive prices. According to declarations made by the CEO of DI Oils, they are working with plantations of jatropha for the production of biodiesel from Ghana to the Philippines, passing through India, Madagascar and South Africa. Up till now they have established 267,000 hectares and have the intention of expanding to 9 million ha in the future.

According to the British Crop Protection Council (BCPC) the use of transgenic crops for the biofuel industry is inevitable. President Lula of Brazil has called for transgenic soy to be used for biofuels and good soy for human consumption. Argentina is also advancing plans to transform transgenic soy into biodiesel.

The industry considers that for the processing of biofuels, large refining plants need to be constructed close to agricultural areas or forests, which is where the raw material is found. This will depend on whether the biofuel is sold in its pure form or as a mixture. Generally biofuels are mixed with gasoline or conventional diesel. The forms of transport are similar to those used in the oil industry. It is predicted that the oil industry, with the aim of maintaining control over distribution, will enter an agreement with these new companies since in many cases the production chain can be very complex.

Is this a business in which all win?

Apparently this is a business in which everybody wins. European emissions of CO2 decrease, and third world countries increase their exports, increasing the quality of life of rural populations. However the reality is different.

…countries of the third world become the sources of supply of this new industry.

It is said that during the growth of the crops, they absorb CO2. This is true only in relation to what was growing before the plantation was established. Since the industry has plans of growing exponentially, it is possible that they will occupy primary or secondary forested areas, as already occurs with the plantations of soy in Argentina (where slowly forests of el Chaco have been displaced), Paraguay (where soy has replaced Pantanal, Atlantic Forest and Chaco areas) and even more dramatically in Brazil where Amazon forests, Pantanal, and Atlantic forests have been replaced by soy. In this case the CO2 balance is negative.

On the other hand the moment in which the biodiesel is burned CO2 is regenerated as a product of combustion. Additionally, other greenhouse gases are generated as a product of the crop itself and in the refining and distribution of the fuel. Therefore the use of biofuels generates CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

The effects on the producers of the raw materials can be extremely negative. First we have the destruction of forest and other original vegetation. If we include the mass expansion of these crops, it could threaten the food sovereignty of local populations, because they would stop producing crops for food with the aim of producing “clean fuels” for European countries.

Argentina, for example, has planned to increase the production of soy to 100 million tons, which implies a huge environmental and social cost to the Argentinean people, such as displacement from rural lands, growing deforestation and desertification of soils and therefore greater hunger and social inequity.

Large-scale agriculture, such as is needed to comply with the demand for biofuels, is highly dependent on oil derivatives which, apart from producing CO2 emissions, are highly contaminating.

The predictions for Brazil are alarming, since this country could become the world leader in the substitution of fossil fuels for sources of renewable energy, with all the impacts this implies. Even though in Brazil biofuels have been obtained from sugar cane the expansion of soy will make the substitution of this crop inevitable.

To look for solutions to the current energy model, it is not enough to think of technological solutions or substitute one source of energy for another. Instead we need to think of new, sustainable, decentralized and just societies.

Oilwatch is a resistance network that opposes the activities of oil companies in tropical countries.

[2 jan 07]

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