Summary in English of article from Le Monde Diplomatique: 'Les cinq mythes de la transition vers les agrocarburants' by Eric Holtz-Giménez - summary and translation by Siv O'Neall
Biofuels… The word already evokes the image of clean and inexhaustible renewable energy, confidence in technology and a power of progress compatible with the lasting protection of the environment. It allows the industry and politicians, the World Bank, the United Nations and even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to present the fuels made from corn, sugar cane, soya and other cultures as the next step in a smooth transition from the peak of oil production to an energy economy based on renewable resources, which yet has to be defined.
The programs are already ambitious. It is anticipated that the fuel coming from biomass will cover 5.75 % of the needs of transportation fuels in 2010 and 20 % in 2020. The United States are aiming at thirty-five billion gallons a year. These goals are vastly higher than the production capacities of the industrialized countries of the Northern hemisphere. Europe would have to mobilize 70 % of its arable lands to cover its deal of the bargain; the totality of the harvests of corn and soya in the United States would have to be converted to biofuel and biodiesel. A conversion of that order would completely turn upside down the food systems of the nations in the North. That is why the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is interested in the Southern hemisphere to cover their needs.
The big oil, cereal and automobile industries and genetic engineering groups are powerful partners in this rapidly increasing mobilization of capital and the stupefying growth of the biofuel industry.
One more reason to spread light on the underlying myths of the transition to biofuels before jumping on the already speeding train.
The five myths
1. Biofuels are clean and protect the environment
2. Biofuels do not cause deforestation
3. Biofuels allow for rural development
4. Biofuels do not cause starvation
5. Biofuels of "the second generation" are within reach
Biofuels are clean and protect the environment
Since the photosynthesis that takes place in this culture removes greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and since biofuels can reduce the dependence on fossil fuels, they are said to protect the environment. When one analyses their impact 'from cradle to tomb' – from the land clearing until their use in road transportation – the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are canceled out by the much more important ones due to deforestation, to fires, to the drainage of humid zones, to cultivating practices and to the loss of carbon in the ground.
The ethanol produced from sugar cane cultivated on land cleared from tropical forests emits half as much again of greenhouse gases as the production of an equivalent quantity of gasoline.