Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Limits of Biofuels

The use of biofuels as an alternative to fossil fuels has exploded in the last few years, as oil production has plateaued. In the past six years the amount of land devoted to biofuels has risen from 12 million hectares to 80 million hectares.

At the same time world population continues to grow by 70 million a year while countries like India and China are increasingly switching to a higher protein, meat diet that requires more grain. The result has been soaring commodity prices, threatening more vulnerable regions of the world with the risk of food shortages.

Demand for biofuels has also resulted in charges of human rights abuses. A report by Friends of the Earth and indigenous rights groups claims that millions of hectares of Indonesian forests have been cleared to meet the growing demand for palm oil. As many as 90 million indigenous peoples who rely on the forests are losing their land to the palm oil companies. The report charges that the companies often use violent tactics to force natives off their land.

The push for biofuels began with a laudable desire to decrease use of oil and reduce carbon emissions, but the results show that present methods of producing biofuels soon run into serious human and environmental costs. This alternative to oil is already reaching its limits.