Green groups hoping that the social and environmental cost of biofuels would get an airing at the United Nations climate change conference at Bali are a disappointed lot. The Dec. 3-14 conference has given only marginal attention to biofuels during the formal sessions — involving government officials and ministers from some 180 countries — where a blueprint is being shaped to strike a balance between economic growth and environment protection.

“There has not been a push during the negotiations for biofuels,” says Tony Juniper, executive director of the British branch of Friends of the Earth (FoE), a global green lobby. “It had a very low profile on the agenda here. There were only some areas where it did creep in, such as the discussions on forestry and land use.”

Such silence will only be welcome news for those driving the demand for biofuels, he said. “The rapidly expanding agro-fuel market does not need an agreement from Bali to shape its course. But it does not mean that individual governments cannot do anything; they can negotiate controls.” “Biofuels have big implications for land rights, food security, biodiversity and even climate change,” he added, echoing the statement that was released by the international office of FoE on the eve of the conference, which argued that “biofuels must not be promoted as a solution to climate change.”

Other international environmental networks like The World Conservation Union (or IUCN) confirmed the marginal status of the biofuel debate by the activities they organised in Bali. IUCN hosted 10 events to raise the profile of the global implications of biofuel at a hotel a short distance from the main conference venue, where non-governmental organisations voiced their views on climate change. A discussion on Thursday evening was titled: ‘Dispelling the myths: biofuels for climate change mitigation and adaptation.’

“We are concerned about the pressure biofuel production is placing on the world’s food reserves. If you produce biofuel with food crops like corn, you won’t have it to meet food demand,” Jeff McNeely, chief scientist of IUCN said. “The grain reserves of the world today are the lowest they have been in the last 10 to 15 years.” Similar views were expressed by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in pamphlets made available at the UN agency’s display booth in the main conference venue. “Food security (availability and accessibility) of the poor may be compromised by increased demand for energy crops,” it cautioned.

Currently, the biofuel industry is fed by corn, wheat, sugarcane and palm oil, among other crops. Close to 5,000 litres of biofuel can be extracted from one hectare of corn, 6,000 lt from a hectare of sugarcane and 4,500 litres from a hectare of palm oil, said Barbara Bramble of the National Wildlife Federation. The demand for biofuels on the international market has spiked as industrial nations are compelled to reduce their greenhouse gas (GhG) emissions under the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. A bulk of these gases are produced by the oil and fossil fuels used in the industrialised world.

And the main driver of this demand, the European Union (EU), has admitted that a more sustainable policy is needed to meet a 2010 target of having 5.7 per cent of its transport fuel from green sources. — IPS