UK leads the run for biofuels in Africa

Climate & Natural resources03 Jun 2011Evert-jan Quak

Yesterday, The Guardian published an interesting investigation on biofuels in Africa. Although it is difficult to have a complete picture of all land acquired by foreign companies for biofuel production as there are no central records of land acquisitions in Africa, the survey discovered that British firms have acquired more land in Africa for biofuel plantations than companies from any other country.

Half the 3.2 million hectares of biofuel land identified in Africa is linked to 11 British companies. Italy is the next biggest player with seven companies, followed by Germany (six), France (six) and the US (four). Brazil and China have been acquiring land in Africa for biofuels and food, but the investigation identified only a handful of established biofuel projects.

Biofuels are controversial (The Broker already published an article in 2007 about the issue) as evidence is growing of the impact of biofuel production on land grabbing, food prices and carbon emissions by deforestation. A market has been created in Europe as a result of a directive that states that in 2020 no less than 10% of the fuel used in the transport sector should be derived from biomass, requiring the blending of rising amounts of biofuels with petrol and diesel.

But a World Bank paper in 2010 concluded that biofuel production to meet current national targets will lead to a 1 percent reduction in global food supply, and increased food costs will hurt especially the poor in developing countries. The Institute of European Environmental Policy recently said that carbon released from deforestation linked to biofuels could exceed carbon savings by 35% in 2011 rising to 60% in 2018.

Even the EU acknowledged that there are problems. A report that they commissioned concludes that indirect land-use change can reduce greenhouse gas emissions savings associated with biofuels. Currently, this indirect impact is not considered in European sustainability guidelines.