Green economy and biofuels: what did the CBD say ?

April 2011
1 page

Helena Paul

Eco "Post-COP 10", Vol 36(1), p.1 & 6

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.

As expected, agrofuels were a major focus at the 10th Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), in Nagoya, Japan. Even though the evidence against them is mounting, they remain a priority for a number of governments. The chairs of the working group on biofuels and biodiversity, Canada and Colombia, tried to introduce a new text with a different title. Their supporters included the U.S., Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Argentina, but the move was strongly resisted by Malawi, speaking for the Africa Group. Parties that insisted on retaining the original title starting with Biofuels and Biodiversity included Bolivia, Norway, Philippines, Ghana, Switzerland, Dominican Republic, Namibia and Tanzania. Parties therefore returned to working on the previous non‐paper, resulting in UNEP/CBD/COP/DEC/X/37.

Biomass, the new bioeconomy and the green economy

The word biomass is now in the preamblar paragraph for the decision, and in paragraph 13. The latter calls for its negative impacts on biodiversity to be minimized or avoided. The third preamble point simply notes the rapid development of new technologies to convert biomass into a wider range of fuels. Although this development is not as rapid as proponents would like, investments and subsidies are going into it. It potentially implies major impacts on biodiversity through the development of a biomass economy that seeks to convert biomass into a similar or broader range of products, including fuels, as are currently derived from fossil oil. The Rio+20 emphasis on the green economy could become an opportunity to promote the biomass economy, with serious implications for biodiversity. We therefore need to be ready to use this text to oppose irrational biomass developments.

Good aspects of the Decision

There are good points in this decision, for example, in the phrase “promote the positive and minimize or avoid the negative impacts of biofuels on biodiversity”, (see 3,6,7,8,10 and 11 in decision). The important addition of the word “avoid” in addition to minimize is supported by Article 14 of the Convention. Paragraph 7 refers to ecosystem functions, and also mentions areas that could be “exempted from” or “deemed inappropriate for biofuels”. This is an important development as it begins the process of making it clear that some areas should not even be considered for developments such as biofuels.

What to get back in

Positive text in the SBSTTA recommendation was lost at Nagoya. Article 17 of the SBSTTA text “reiterates that the precautionary approach should be applied to the production and use of biofuels”. It now applies only to Living Modified Organisms (LMOs) for biofuels and “the release of synthetic life, cell, or genome into the environment” (article 16 of the decision). Another important aspect relates to invasive alien species, which are mentioned only in the decision preamble, and should be returned to the operational text, since so many biofuels are invasive. Land tenure is mentioned in 2, but the words “land security” and “land rights” were both in the SBSTTA recommendation and would be preferable, as they are stronger and indicate clearer rights than tenure, despite being more contentious. While it is always a struggle to get proper recognition of indigenous rights into any text, we have references to full and effective participation of indigenous and local communities in paragraphs 3,4 and 7, and in 9 of the decision, but attempts to introduce references to UNDRIP were opposed, mainly by Canada.

Next steps

Paragraphs 11 and 12 of the decision request the Executive Secretary to carry out certain tasks and report on progress to the next SBSTTA, but these are very limited in their scope. They relate to standards and methodologies, and list a number of organisations that are strong advocates of biofuels as collaborators. Civil society must keep emphasizing that biofuels are not a sustainable path, using the best available evidence regarding both first generation and next generation biofuels. Struggles over text are crucial but so is assembling and disseminating the evidence to persuade Parties and civil society that the biofuels agenda undermines the Convention and is destructive to biodiversity, indigenous peoples and local communities.
The biofuels industry has worked hard to convince policymakers that the serious problems with agrofuels can be restricted to the so‐called ‘first generation’ (corn ethanol and vegetable biodiesels). It’s a claim that owes more to wishful thinking than good science. Next-generation biofuels (such as cellulosic ethanol, algae and sugar‐based diesel) may in fact pose a bigger threat to biodiversity – opening up forests, deserts, wetlands and grasslands to new commercial pressures and potential invasive species.
A new report by the ETC Group, The New Biomassters – Synthetic Biology and the Next Assault on Biodiversity and Livelihoods unveiled in Nagoya, launches a closely argued critique of these next generation fuels and of the “bioeconomy” concept now driving OECD research and industrial policies. In bioeconomy scenarios it is intended that not only fuel production but also production of electricity, plastics and chemicals will switch to biomass feedstocks. Enabling such a switch are new technological possibilities emerging out of Synthetic Biology – an extreme form of genetic engineering that also came up for discussion in Nagoya under ‘new and emerging issues’. The New Biomassters argues that, far from a “Green Economy”, switching to biomass amounts to a red hot resource grab on the lands of the global South that will undermine the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.
86 percent of global biomass is to be found in the tropics and at least a fifth of global land grabs there are already driven by the need to secure biomass feedstocks for the ‘bioeconomy’ policies of the North. Not only are these land grabs driving landlessness and hunger, the resulting land use change and associated agricultural practices are already releasing significant quantities of greenhouse gases ‐ putting the lie to the carbon neutral claims made for biomass.