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Biofuels Fallacy: Why Burning Plants Instead of Fossil Fuels Won't Save the Climate

The quest to replace black fuels with green fuels is just another resource and land grab by big corporations.

While there is no doubt that we need to kick our fossil fuel addiction, how we move to cleaner and greener ways of living is still under debate. Our first attempts at using biofuels, particularly ethanol, have been largely disastrous. But what about other plant-based fuel options? A new report from the ETC Group provides good reason to be suspicious -- especially considering that the companies behind the new "green" fuels are BP, Shell, DuPont, Chevron, Syngenta, Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill and Monsanto (to name a few): the same players that brought us the petroleum economy, the food crisis and climate chaos.

Jim Thomas and his colleagues in ETC Group are consistently at the cutting edge of watch-dogging emerging technologies, from GMOs and nanotechnology to geoengineering and synthetic biology. Their critique tends to combine concern over unleashing potentially dangerous elements with a social analysis that recognizes the dynamics of power behind these technologies -- who stands to benefit and who stands to lose. I spoke with Thomas about the publication of a new report by ETC Group.

Jeff Conant: You and your colleagues at ETC Group are strong advocates of taking what I would call a reasoned approach to the deployment of new technologies; you're best known for having led the charge for a global ban on the infamous Terminator Seed, and you've just had a tremendous victory by winning a global moratorium on geoengineering experiments (see last week's piece on AlterNet). Now, you're releasing a report on another impending technological concern: synthetic biology.

Jim Thomas: The report is called " The New Biomassters: Synthetic Biology and the Next Assault on Biodiversity and Livelihoods." It's an exposé and argument against the new "bioeconomy" most OECD countries are now promoting as the next (supposedly "green") wave of industrial production -- switching from fossil fuels to biological material (biomass) as the key feedstock of the economy. As such, it encompasses biofuels, burning biomass for electricity, and using biomass for chemicals, plastics and other materials formerly sourced from petroleum.

JC: But isn't this exactly what a lot of enviros want: an end to fossil fuel development in favor of renewables? What's the concern?

JT: The bioeconomy reimagines plant life as just another source of carbon -- a sort of above-ground oil reserve that can fuel the same economy we already have with just a little technological tweaking -- moving from black fossil carbon to green living carbon. While that shift in carbon feedstocks may be dressed up as a green "switch," it is in fact a red-hot imperial resource grab -- on plants, land, genes and the entire "primary production" of the planet. Just as grabbing fossil carbon has displaced communities and fueled wars, so those who will suffer in the development of this new bioeconomy will be the traditional communities of the old bioeconomy. Another concern is, there is simply not enough biomass to make such a transition -- indeed, industrial civilization is already taking too much.

There's an assumption embedded in the UNFCCC and other climate policy that biomass is a carbon neutral energy source. That is wrong, dangerously so. Another mistaken assumptions is that so-called next-generation biofuels (cellulosic fuels or algae fuels) are better than the disastrous first-generation biofuels.

JC: Disastrous, in that the sudden rise in investment in biofuels led to an equally sudden displacement of food crops and helped cause the food crisis that began in 2008?

JT: That, yes; but beyond that, the point that biofuels were shown to have an equal or greater net carbon footprint than fossil fuels. I don't think most people realize that when you burn biomass for energy you can release more CO2 than coal. Of course its assumed that CO2 will get fixed again by theoretical replacement plants over some unspecified time period, but in the process there are massive unaccounted-for greenhouse gas emissions from disturbing soils, use of fertilizers and pesticides, harvesting, transport, refining, and consuming -- it can only be called disastrous.

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