Bioenergy / Biomass

Briefing - September 2015

Renewable energy legislation such as the EU Renewable Energy Directive (RED) aims to significantly scale up forms of energy classed as renewable, with the stated aim of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. There has been a lack of critical debate about the definition of renewable energy to date. According to the International Energy Agency, renewable energy is "energy derived from natural processes (e.g. sunlight and wind) that are replenished at a faster rate than they are consumed".

Large-scale industrial bioenergy does not meet this definition because it relies on a major expansion of industrial agriculture,
monoculture tree plantations, and industrial logging, which deplete and pollute soils and water, destroy natural ecosystems and biodiversity, and destroy the livelihoods of many millions of people, particularly in the global South.
Furthermore, large-scale industrial bioenergy cannot meet the EU’s stated aim of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) because it leads to emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases that are commonly greater than those from the use of fossil fuels.
Nevertheless, within the EU's overall renewable energy target, bioenergy competes with more sustainable and climate-friendly renewable energy rather than with fossil fuels.
This briefing makes the case for taking bioenergy out the new EU Renewable Energy Directive for 2020-230.

Open Letter - September 2015


We, the signatories of this declaration, are calling on the European Union (EU) to exclude bioenergy from its next Renewable Energy Directive (RED), and thereby stop direct and indirect subsidies for renewable energy from biofuels and wood-burning.

Report - July 2013

Why despite ten years of accumulating evidence on the social and environmental cost of agrofuels, does the European Commission persist with its failed policies? An analysis of the EU's bioeconomy vision, how it is fuelling land grabs in Africa, the agrofuels lobby that drives policy, and the alternative visions for energy that are being ignored.

On the eve of the new millennium, the EU embarked upon a major agroenergy and bioeconomy experiment. More than ten years on, the evidence from science, academia, and grassroots voices is clear: most of the claims initially made for agroenergy as a truly renewable alternative to fossil fuels are flawed. Worst of all, the creation of an EU market for industrial agrofuels has been shown to have a negative impact on the land and resource rights, livelihoods, and food security of local populations, especially in the global South. Our primary obligation in Europe is to reduce energy consumption, in particular that which has an impact on other regions, and change our current energy dense development model. Agroenergy does not qualify as renewable energy and the EU agroenergy policy framework should therefore be dismantled.

Commentary - January 2013

Comments from Biofuelwatch, EcoNexus and Global Forest Coalition

The 2011 Report on Price volatility and food security by the HLPE on Food Security and Nutrition provided well-researched and high-quality evidence about the role of biofuels in recent food price rises and price volatility.
We had therefore anticipated that the draft report “Biofuels and Food Security” by the HLPE on Food Security and Nutrition would build on and further develop the evidence collated for the 2011 report. Instead, we have been deeply disappointed by the low quality of evidence and inaccuracies contained within this draft report. While some paragraphs and statements are based on convincing evidence, so many are not that we believe the report needs to be sent back to be substantially re-written before being put out to public consultation again. Below are examples of some of the serious flaws we have found in the report followed by key concerns about the draft recommendations.

Article - May 2012

It was interesting to hear from Brazil this evening that the biofuels text was unbalanced and too negative about biofuels and that Jatropha, for example, is good for climate mitigation. It was also instructive to learn that there are no invasive alien species issues around biofuels. Considering that there a lot of scientific evidence points to some biofuels also being invasive species, it really made one wonder if some delegates realise that SBSTTA is actually a scientific body. Just some of the invasive alien species considered for biofuel include perennial grasses such as switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), reed canarygrass (Phalaris arundinacea), miscanthus (Miscanthus spp.), and giant reed (Arundo donax). Then there are trees such from the poplar family (Populus spp.), willows (Salix spp.) and eucalyptus (Eucalyptus spp). In addition we have Jatropha (Jatropha curcas), African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), and moringa (Moringa oleifera). This is only a very short extract from a long list. A number of these species have already demonstrated their invasiveness in different regions. Some readily create an invasive monoculture that wipes out biodiversity. Others combine to create alien landscapes that superficially resemble simplified ecosystems.

We also heard from NGO Searice of the Philippines that algae ‘without a name’, destined for biofuel production, were going to be introduced in a marine sanctuary – an area of one million hectares close to the shore, a region regularly visited by dolphins and whales. The fact that these algae were apparently nameless caused Searice to wonder if they were actually a product of synthetic biology. Local communities successfully resisted the project, using the precautionary principle. However, these algae were also destined for release in other areas and we do not know what happened there.

Briefing - April 2012

Biofuels, Bioenergy, Biochar and the Technologies of the new Bioeconomy

Industrial scale bioenergies, including biofuels are rapidly expanding, creating massive new demand for wood, vegetable oil and agricultural products. Already these demands are inflicting serious and irreversible impacts on forests and other natural ecosystems, soils and water resources. Expansion of industrial monocultures, including tree plantations, to meet this demand occurs at the expense of biodiversity and food production, while also contributing to “land grabs”, undermining the rights of peasant farmers and indigenous peoples, and hampering efforts to achieve food sovereignty and agrarian reform.
The CBD Secretariat's report rightly acknowledges many of these negative impacts. However, in line with COP10 decision X/37, it focuses predominantly on 'tools', i.e. standards and certification, to address the often complex direct and indirect negative impacts, without assessing whether those tools are credible instruments.
Standards and certification schemes per se have not been effective and are no match for countering the drivers of bioenergy expansion: targets, mandates and subsidies, especially in Europe and North America. To effectively address the negative impacts, those incentives need to be eliminated.

Submission - June 2011

Comments on the transport elements of the Renewable Energy Directive and on article 7 of the EU Fuel Quality Directive

We believe that serious damage being done in the global south by the EU biofuel target and that sustainability criteria are completely inadequate to address this.

Article - May 2011

The UK Nuffield Council on Bioethics proposes five ethical principles and a duty to develop biofuels instead of the Precautionary Principle

The Precautionary Principle advises society to be cautious about a technology or practice where there is scientific uncertainty, ignorance, gaps in knowledge or the likelihood of outcomes we did not predict or intend. It runs counter to the optimistic notion that any negative impacts from a technology can be addressed and may provide an opportunity to develop new solutions, so contributing to economic growth. The US Chamber of Commerce dislikes the precautionary approach and prefers: “the use of sound science, cost-benefit analysis, and risk assessment when assessing a particular regulatory issue.” Its strategy is therefore to: “Oppose the domestic and international adoption of the precautionary principle as a basis for regulatory decision making.”

Update - May 2011

By 2020 each European country should be using 10% biofuel in transport. This target is mainly to provide stability for commercial investment in biofuels. Even though many EU countries are not building up to the implementation of the target as quickly as expected, it is already causing serious damage to ecosystems, biodiversity, food production and communities in the global south. Yet many people in the UK and other EU countries are not aware that every time they fill up their cars with petrol, they are burning biofuel. Setting the EU biofuel target was a mistake and it should be dropped.

Article - April 2011

With next year’s Rio+20 Earth Summit due to meet in the ‘biofuel republic of Brazil’ it is little wonder that the fights over agrofuels will be intensifying in the years ahead. UNEP’s flagship ‘Green Economy’ study published last month appears to bless a massive expansion of agrofuel – advocating for over a fifth (21.6%) of all liquid fuels to be bio‐based by 2050. Sourcing all that biological feedstock is a feat that even UNEP admit will gobble up over a third (37%) of global agricultural and forest ‘residues’ – a hefty take from already overstressed ecosystems.


Agrofuels or biofuels?

Agrofuels are sometimes referred to as biofuels. The term biofuels is used widely for any fuel derived from biological material in contrast to fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas). It includes for example biogas production from landfill sites. Where plants are cultivated in agricultural systems for the purpose of fuel production, the term agrofuel is more appropriate to include the specific context and problems such as monoculture plantations and the competition with land for food production.

Myths and realities

First generation agrofuels are liquid fuels made from the reproductive parts (seeds) of crop plants. Two examples of the main types are ethanol produced from the starch of maize kernels and biodiesel from the oil of soya beans. They were strongly promoted as a means to address climate change, to improve energy security and to regenerate rural areas, without reducing the use of internal combustion engines (e.g. cars, tractors, planes, generators) or even modifying those engines too radically.
But contradictions soon emerged, as shown by the report Towards a Reality Check in Nine Key Areas. Agrofuels threaten biodiversity and food security without actually being a solution for climate change. They also need large areas of land and plenty of water. The suggestion that they should be grown on millions of hectares of 'marginal land' ignores the fact that such land may well be vital to local communities and the resilience of ecosystems, their function and services. If such land is genuinely degraded, as often claimed, it is unlikely that it would support the production of crops at industrial scale without massive inputs.
Second generation agrofuels are now promoted as a solution to the problems of the first generation. These 'advanced' agrofuels are meant to utilise the whole plant or tree to produce fuel and other commercially valuable products that are currently derived from fossil fuels, such as plastics. Producing these next (or second) generation agrofuels is energy intensive and involves breaking down the complex, resilient lignin and the different celluloses in tree and plant biomass, using heat, pressure and chemicals. Microbiological processes are also required and are being further developed for these purposes, including the use of genetically modified microorganisms. At the same time researchers are trying to produce fast-growing genetically modified (GM) trees with reduced or less resilient lignin.

January 2011