Biofuels turn out not to be a sustainable replacement for fossil-fuels, but just another way for agribusiness to maintain profits, finds Elaine Graham-Leigh

Okbazghi Yohannes, The Biofuels Deception: Going Hungry on the Green Carbon Diet, (Monthly Review Press 2018), 344pp.

Biofuels have, to some, appeared as an attractive solution to climate change, arguably because they seem not to involve complex, structural changes. If creating new, green infrastructure to replace coal or gas-fired power stations, or getting rid of petrol and diesel, is too difficult, then we could simply replace the fossil fuels with carbon-neutral versions made from plants. The way in which some oil companies have attempted to green their image by investing in biofuels, such as BP with their Beyond Petroleum rebranding exercise in the 2000s, have added to the sense of biofuels as a technological solution which could be implemented within the current system. For some, the limited resources which some oil companies have put into biofuels can be held up as an example of what green capitalism can do.

The obvious issue with biofuels adoption is of course that land used for growing energy is land that cannot be used for growing food crops. In a market system, it would be reductive to argue that food prices charged to the end user have any sort of linear relationship with the scarcity or abundance of the food crops involved. Speculation in food crops has played a significant role in food-price spikes such as those seen in 2007-8. It is clear, however, that competition from biofuels production does increase the likelihood of severe food-price increases. This has been widely recognised since the food-price crisis of 2007-8, so much so that 2007 has been dubbed ‘the year the world woke up to the significant climate, social and human injustice impacts of this new energy technology’. 

Biofuels and food prices

Yohannes’ central contribution to this understanding of the drawbacks of biofuels is the insight that the impact of biofuels crops on food-crop prices is a feature, not a bug. The development of biofuels has not been in spite of their competition with food production, but in order to achieve it. The origins of biofuels therefore go back to the commodification of agriculture and the creation of the worldwide market in agricultural produce. In particular, it is rooted in the Green Revolution, which brought agricultural land across the Global South into capitalist production. 

The fundamental problem for global agribusiness is that there is a limit to how much consumers in the Global North can eat. They therefore cannot provide a sufficient market for everything that global agribusiness produces. The widespread adoption of crops for livestock feed, as an alternative to grass feeding, absorbs some of the surplus; so too, arguably, do production processes which create waste as well as adding surplus value. These however are insufficient to enable the price of crops to remain high enough to be continually profitable. This is happening, of course, while consumers in the Global South go hungry, but the problem from agribusiness’ point of view is that they aren’t rich enough to provide a market. 

Using arable land and crops for biofuels production therefore provides this third market for agribusiness alongside Northern consumers and livestock. As Yohannes explains, the existence of a biofuels market enables corporations to manipulate the prices of their products to avoid slumps and sell profitably even in situations of over production. Seen in this light, biofuels are less a market response to climate change than an example of concern about climate change providing legitimisation for a market-led distortion of agriculture. 

The case presented by Yohannes for the harm done by the biofuels market is a convincing one. It does however leave the question of whether biofuels could or should be part of post-capitalist response to climate change. If the global inequalities which see people starving not because of a dearth of food, but because they do not have the resources to buy it were removed, would biofuels be a sensible option? 

Could biofuels ever be sustainable?

Here it is necessary to distinguish between different types of biofuels. First-generation biofuels are crops grown specifically for production of fuels like bioethanol or biodiesel, including sunflowers, rapeseed, sugarcane, corn, rice and so on. These are obviously in direct competition with food production for human consumption and, crucially, do not present a convincing alternative to fossil fuels. This is because the amount of this sort of material required to produce biofuels is so great. Yohannes quotes an estimate that the world’s entire harvested biomass would only produce 20% of our estimated 2050 energy needs (p.227). Diversion of agricultural resources to biofuels production on anywhere near this sort of scale is obviously untenable, not just in terms of land use but also in terms of the strain it would put on water resources.

The statistics on first-generation biofuels mean that despite the green branding, they are in no way carbon-neutral. Diverting agricultural land to biofuels production is a major driver of deforestation and therefore of carbon-emissions increases. The global agricultural market does provide perverse incentives for deforestation to switch agriculture to biofuels cash crops, but in any system, mass biofuels production would need to use currently forested land. This is also not the only carbon entailed in first-generation biofuels production. In some cases, the energy required to make the biofuels is greater than the energy they supply: making sunflower diesel requires 118% of its energy. Since this energy input would have to be non-biofuels, it is quite possible that sunflower diesel would actually require more fossil-fuel use than diesel itself. 

In contrast to first-generation biofuels, the second generation is supposed to avoid the problems of competition for land and water resources with food crops or carbon sinks by using waste products, like waste cooking oil or wood pellets from sawmills. The marketing for these sorts of biofuels marries a virtuous zero-waste strategy to fossil-fuel avoidance and can seem to be an incontrovertible good. Hence, for example, Drax power station, once a symbol of polluting fossil-fuel energy generation and the focus of a Climate Camp, is now a biomass generator and officially carbon-neutral. 

The capitalist market and the metabolic rift

The problem is that, within the market system, as soon as there is money to be made from a former waste product, there is an incentive to produce that waste product from scratch. Yohannes points out that switching plants like Drax to biomass has created a market for wood pellets which is being filled by cutting down whole trees. Even when they are replaced by plantations of fast-growing species destined to be turned into pellets in their turn, large-scale logging in this way removes important carbon sinks and causes carbon emissions. According to Yohannes, once the wood pellets used in biomass generation are more than 40% from whole trees, they are actually responsible for more greenhouse-gas emissions than some fossil fuels. 

This is yet another example of how the market works against genuine sustainability, but as with first-generation biofuels, the second generation do not seem to be a sustainable choice even outside capitalism. This is because the waste created by production processes is not genuinely unwanted but is an important part of a healthy ecosystem. The wood pellets used in biomass plants are a case in point. 

In order to have any claim to carbon neutrality, these pellets need to be made of the offcuts from logging and sawing operations, rather than from whole trees felled specifically to make biomass. It is true that until the creation of biomass plants, these offcuts would have been treated as waste and thrown away, but this does not mean that there would never have been a sustainable use for them. Whole fallen trees, and the stumps and small branches left when trees are cut down, are important parts of the forest ecosystem. When this sort of material is removed, the forest becomes less able to support diverse populations and to act as a carbon sink. Removing them from the forest is in fact a classic example of the metabolic rift identified by Marx, where capitalist production removes an element of an ecosystem for it to become a pollutant elsewhere. Plant residues like this are never really waste; they only appear so to capitalist production because, and as long as, they have no market function. Large-scale power generation from biomass would, Yohannes argues, be harmful to the environment just as first-generation biofuels, or indeed fossil fuels, are. 

The superficial attraction of biofuels was that they appeared to offer the continuation of business as usual while reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. In fact, they would deliver only the first half of that promise; the continuation of profits for agribusiness while allowing world hunger and climate change both to continue unabated. Yohannes does not subscribe to the idea that we are already up against the world’s carrying capacity, arguing that adopting sustainable agroecology could feed the current and future global population from the current croplands. This positive picture of the resources available however does not mean that biofuels would be part of that sustainable agriculture. The idea of biofuels was only given serious attention because it was a way for agribusiness to manipulate the market. After all, who but a capitalist would ever think that a sensible use of food crops would be to burn them?

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.