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“All Citizens are Equal before Law and are Entitled to Equal Protection of Law”-Article 27 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Issue No: 68
May 17 , 2008

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Human Rights Analysis
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Human Rights analysis

Biofuel: Boon or a crime against humanity?

Md. Mushfiqur Rahman

Development comes at a price. This time the price is FOOD! The physical development that we see all-around is mostly fuel driven. And till recently it has been almost all fossil fuels. These principally include petroleum, natural gas and coal. Decomposed bodies of plants and animals, which lived on earth 300 million years back, deposited way beneath the earth to form fossil fuels. While burned these fuels release chemical energy that run most of the power plants, factories and even help us cook rice.

So far these have been providing the source of energy that humankind needs to carry on its development activities. But heavy reliance on these non-renewable sources of energy is potentially risky in that these are exhaustible in nature and reserves of these are ever dwindling. In the worst-case scenario we will consume the rest of fossil fuels within next 17 years, though the best-case scenario allows us to continue the consumption for next 50-70 years. It widely depends on consumption pattern and discovery of new reserves about which there is no telling.

This crisis of energy source makes countries go desperate, wage illegal wars, put unjustified pressures on weaker countries to export their fuel reserve and what not. With the price of petroleum hitting 126 dollar per barrel and projected to touch 200 dollar within six months, oil politics has reached its peak. This fuel crisis is taxing on every economy, big and small alike. No wonder the world has been longing for renewable source of energy. Solar power has been around as an alternative source for quite a while, so are windmills, but are not just economically viable enough to be used on industrial scale as yet. Biofuel reemerged as the answer for many.

What is biofuel? Fuels produced from biomass are generally termed as biofuels. In this sense woods and leafs used for cooking and heating, and biogas produced from cattle waste to generate electricity are also biofuels. In food vs. fuel debate the term is used in a more specific manner to denote production of ethanol from crops for automobiles. Crops having sugar contents e.g. sugar cane, sugar beet or starch e.g. corn, wheat, rapeseed, maize can be used to produce ethanol through fermentation. Or, naturally oil producing plants e.g. oil palm, soybean, algae or jatropha can be reduced to biodiesel.

The idea of using biofuels in motorized vehicles is not a very new one. In fact it dates back to the very early years of automobile industry. But huge supplies of mineral fuels during the post World War II period shifted the balance in favor of fossil fuels. Discovery of large reserves in the Middle East and the USA made the use of fossil fuel lot cheaper than biofuels. Recent development in fuel-centric incidents including armed conflicts, rapid economic growth in China, India, Russia, Brazil etc, fear of exhaustion within a few years, caused the price of fossil fuel reach levels never seen before. This triggered renewed interest in biofuels among industrialized countries that are no more willing to depend exclusively on the supplies of oil producing countries.

The USA and the EU countries are providing direct and indirect subsidies to the biofuel producers. Regulations are being put in place to mandate use of biofuels up to certain percentage of overall fuel used by consumers. Several US states provide subsidies to support production of ethanol or biodiesel at a rate of $0.05 per litre or more. The US federal government also grants a $0.13 per litre tax credit to companies that blend biodiesel with petroleum diesel. According to one estimate the amount of subsidies supplied by the US in promoting biofuel production and usage is expected to reach $8.3 to $11 billion a year. Along with direct subsidies of the same kind offered to biofuel producers, the EU countries encourage the usage of biofuel through tax preferences.

Soaring economies, driven by their fuel hungry industrialization, are also coming along strongly. Chinese government already has made mandatory rules on blending ethanol with conventional fuels. Thailand has opted for the same kind of measures. Governments of Brazil and India are taking steps to expand the production of biodiesel.

These measures swell the biofuel industries at a rate that goes beyond prediction. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) projects that distilleries will require only 60 million tons of corn from the 2008 harvest. But the Earth Policy Institute (EPI), an organization advocating for sustainable development, estimates that distilleries will need 139 million tons- more than twice as much. Moreover, the US president gave a go-ahead to the 'Energy Independence and Security Act' on December 19th of 2007. This law mandates fivefold increase in production of biofuel over current production level by 2022. This will substantially reduce the capacity of the US, a major food exporting country, in producing food crops.

This is alarming because this overwhelming increase in biofuel production will claim more cropland and in turn will reduce the production of grains. This way the interest of the world's 800 million motor vehicle owners would be pitted against the right to sustenance of over 2 billion poorest people. While the volume of world food production failed to catch up the consumption need in six of the last seven years, this unethical contest over cropland can only worsen the situation. We already are experiencing an unprecedented high in food price world over. Increasing biofuel production partly accounts for that and its contribution to food crisis will increase over time.

But how effective an alternative biofuel is or can it potentially replace the conventional fuels? No, it is not as good as some optimists may portray it to be. Bio-ethanol produced by distilleries is mainly used in automobiles. But the amount of grain enough to feed one person for whole one year can only fill a 25-gallon fuel tank once. And if the USA opts to convert its entire grain harvest to biofuel, it would only be enough to keep 16 percent of their automobiles mobile.

It is often claimed by the biofuel producers that biofuels are carbon neutral as the carbon absorbed by new plant growth balances the carbon released during the use of fuel. Thus these are adding no net increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This CO2 recycling story conceals some important facts to make it appear better than it really is. The calculation does not take account of the energy that is required to grow crops and process them into fuel. Agriculture of crops requires manufacture of fertilizer, fuel-driven agro-plants and machineries. Again more need of land to produce biofuels would lead to destruction of forests that are acting as significant sinks of carbon dioxide.

Soon, biofuels would catch the imagination of multinational companies and their venture would not remain limited to home countries. Countries like ours would fall prey to their all-devouring need. Croplands today used for food production would be taken over by cash crops to satisfy the needs of fuel hungry countries. We would be in deeper crisis, as the country will have no other choice than to import its necessary grains. So we better beware before it is too late.

We need new sources of energy, possibly renewable sources, but not at the expense of our right to food. But how this crisis of humanity can be confronted? Biofuel producers are doing no crime as such though their actions render millions of people descent below poverty line. One possible way I can see is to argue our point from a human rights perspective using the established principles of international environmental law. One such principle is sustainable development of which 'equitable' use of natural resources forms a core element. It implies that use by one state of its natural resources must take account of the needs of other states. This, in other words, is called intra-generational equity. It makes sense as environmental and human rights issues do often disregard artificial national borders and actions in one place adversely impact people of other nationalities. We live on one Earth and must take care that realisation of the vested interest of a few does not bring the downfall of many.

The writer is advocate, member of Dhaka Bar Association.


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