Biofuels - a burning issue

Martin de Jong
Issue 32, November 2010

Biofuels are being embraced worldwide as a renewable alternative to finite fossil fuels, while also generating less carbon emissions than conventional fuels. But is the enthusiasm misguided – and what principles should be borne in mind when considering their production and use? Production of some biofuels may be more polluting than fossil fuels, when considering greenhouse gas emissions over the complete production cycle. There is also clear evidence that large-scale conversion of land to grow fuel crops has impacted food prices and availability, and is affecting people's livelihoods and way of life in significant parts of the world.

From a Catholic perspective, as well as looking at the scientific and physical evidence, we need to consider whether the complex environmental challenges facing the planet will be solved simply by switching the substances by which we fuel often highly consumptive - and widely damaging - lifestyles. As the Vatican said at a United Nations meeting in 2007, noting the 'unprecedented ecological changes' taking place worldwide, "Remedies are not beyond our ingenuity, but we should however be careful not to choose a path that will make things worse, especially for the poor." [1]

Governments around the world are encouraging biofuels as part of their toolkit to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), and reduce dependence on fossil fuels. The European Union has set a target of sourcing ten percent of its transport fuel from renewable sources such as biofuels, hydrogen and renewable electricity by 2020. In New Zealand, bioethanol-blended petrol has been available to a limited extent since August 2007, while many organisations and businesses are turning to various types of biofuels including biodiesel. There is currently a voluntary reporting framework on the sustainability of biofuels supplied in New Zealand, while a law requiring all biofuels to be sourced sustainably is being considered by Parliament.

New Zealand 's bioethanol blended petrol currently comes from two sources: whey (a dairy industry byproduct) and Brazilian sugarcane. The government's Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA) in a 2008 report concludes that 'overall ... bioethanol from Brazilian sugarcane is sustainable', though 'that assessment is qualified by a need for demonstrable improvements in a number of key areas, in particular working conditions and worker rights, and improved information on many of the impact categories.' [2]

Scottish expatriate priest Tiago Thorlby, who has worked with landless people, homesteaders and sugar cane workers in Brazil for the last 25 years, is in no doubt that the Brazilian sugar-based biofuels industry is unsustainable and exploitative of its workers. Visiting New Zealand in April 2010, Padre Thorlby said much land that would otherwise be in forests or local food production is being planted in sugar cane. Workers are often living in subhuman conditions with no water for washing, getting poor food, and forced to work from 4am to 5 or 6 at night. [3]

In regard to the overall impact on greenhouse gas emissions, EECA's assessment could not take into account 'the impacts of land use changes on the GHG emissions. Very little information is available in this area and what has been published is conflicting and based on limited data and a large number of assumptions.' [4]

Increased biofuel production for United States and European consumption was a large factor in the 2008 food price crisis. In a report earlier this year, international anti-poverty agency ActionAid said, 'Biofuels are conservatively estimated to have been responsible for at least 30 percent of the global food price spike in 2008.' [5]

In March 2010, internal European Union reports, obtained by news agency Reuters, suggested misgivings about the Union's sustainable fuel target. One report said, 'Current and future support of biofuels... is likely to accelerate the expansion of land under crops, particularly in Latin America and Asia,' carrying the risk of 'significant and hardly reversible environmental damages.' [6]

'Critics say that regardless of where they are grown, biofuels compete for land with food crops,' said the Reuters report, forcing farmers into new areas, sometimes cutting into rainforests, or draining peatlands.

As regards New Zealand's main source of overseas biofuel for cars, the EECA noted that, ' While direct expansion [of sugarcane plantations] into the Amazon forest and cerrado (savannas) is extremely unlikely there is the possibility of other crops and pastureland being shifted further north as they become displaced by the expanding sugarcane plantations.' [7]

It all points to the need for care in land use change, particularly how it affects people.

Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand made submissions on biofuels related bills before New Zealand's Parliament in 2008 and 2009. It cited the importance of Catholic social teaching principles of stewardship and preferential protection of the poor and vulnerable in decisions about biofuel use.

Commenting on the Biofuel Bill 2008 (to introduce a minimum quota for biofuel use in New Zealand – later rescinded), Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand noted that, 'palm oil plantations...have always displaced other activities. In our region of Asia and the Pacific, biofuel plantations must be understood to be a change of land use, whether previously in native forest or other forms of agricultural use.

'Our experience is that land use changes in developing countries rarely occur without impacts on the environment or on the lives of vulnerable groups of people. If New Zealand seeks biofuel from sources in developing countries - such as the growing industries in Malaysia, the Philippines, Laos, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia - we are inevitably asking local people to make sacrifices to meet our demand for fuel.' [8]

Caritas said an increased demand for biofuels would lead to an increase in temptations to change current land use to meet that demand.

At that time, Caritas pointed to the impact that clearing of natural forest for biofuel plantations was having in areas where its partners worked in Laos and Papua New Guinea. This phenomenon continues today. Caritas Pacific Programmes Officer, Leo Duce, says, " The Papua New Guinea government has continued to vigorously emphasise development of natural resources in pursuit of economic development, and has been promoting the expansion of the palm oil industry especially in West New Britain and Oro provinces."

This expansion has 'placed huge threats on the livelihood of the land owners and forest dependent communities who are deceived ... to develop their land with promises of cash and other infrastructural development, e.g. roads, schools, public markets. From their experience, such promises have never been fulfilled.'

In one district, Kimbe, increasing numbers of land owners are selling and leasing customary lands to the New Britain Palm Oil Limited Company (NBPOL). In some cases the company is gaining land for oil palm production through schemes that provide seeds, fertilizers and other inputs, while the local people - the landowners - provide the labour. It's unclear what the long-term benefit to the locals will be.

'Other land owners who are not selling their lands are worried because not only is land being lost around them, but there is a shortage of food nowadays because instead of planting root crops and vegetables, lands are being planted with oil palm,' says Leo Duce.

Communities near the palm oil plantations in Kimbe have also noticed a decline in their fish catch, a loss of drinkable water, and damage to mangrove forests due to waste entering rivers from the plantations.

In an example from Oro Province, a family may be engaged to harvest oil palm fruits. The palm oil company pays them an average of 138 NZD per 100 tons fortnightly. On average, the family produces 300 tons in one fortnight, earning 414 NZD a fortnight. However, 80 percent of that goes to the company supposedly to fund projects such as schools, roads and bridges – which sometimes never eventuate. The family is left with 83 NZD for a fortnight – barely enough to pay for food, school fees and necessary medicines.

Similar biofuel production activity in West Papua is removing forests on which indigenous communities rely for food and other resources.

On such evidence from its project partners overseas, Caritas concluded in 2009, 'Alternatives to fossil fuels must come from sustainable sources which do not themselves contribute to environmental destruction or a reduction in food supply.' [9]

This was echoed in the wider debate on renewable sources of energy by the Vatican's United Nations observer: 'every discussion on identifying reliable, affordable, economically viable, socially acceptable and environmentally sound energy services and resources should take into account the human and environmental long-term costs.' [10]

During the height of the food crisis in 2008, the Vatican representative had said, 'The current food scarcity reemphasizes the urgency to explore new energy supplies which do not pit the right to food with other needs.' [11]

The Catholic Church also recognises, that while seeking environmentally and socially responsible alternative fuel supplies is important, so too is a fresh understanding of humanity and development.

The Vatican's United Nations observer said in May 2007, "in order to address the double challenge of climate change and the need for ever greater energy resources, we will have to change our present model from one of the heedless pursuit of economic growth in the name of development, towards a model which heeds the consequences of its actions and is more respectful towards the Creation we hold in common, coupled with an integral human development for present and future generations." [12] [Emphasis added]

Caritas applied this to its 2008 submission on the Biofuel Bill, saying, 'all New Zealanders need to understand that our current environmental challenges and emergencies require a much deeper level of commitment to lifestyle changes, rather than simply to exchanging one form of fuel for another.' [13]

At the beginning of this year, Pope Benedict said to satisfy the energy needs of both present and future generations, "technologically advanced societies must be prepared to encourage more sober lifestyles, while reducing their energy consumption and improving its efficiency." [14]

More broadly, he said, "Humanity needs a profound cultural renewal; it needs to rediscover those values which can serve as the solid basis for building a brighter future for all. Our present crises – be they economic, food-related, environmental or social – are ultimately also moral crises, and all of them are interrelated. They require us to rethink the path which we are travelling together." [15]

Martin de Jong is Communications & International Advocacy Coordinator, Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand



[1] Msgr Celestino Migliore, Intervention by the Holy See at the 15th Session of the Commission on Sustainable Development of the United Nations Economic and Social Council, 10 May 2007.

[2] Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA), The Sustainability of Brazilian Sugarcane Bioethanol: A Literature Review, May 2008, p 5.

[3] Cecily McNeill, 'Missionary in Brazil tells of workers' exploitation for ethanol', in Wel-com, May 2010, available at

[4] Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA), The Sustainability of Brazilian Sugarcane Bioethanol: A Literature Review, May 2008, p 5.

[5] Cited in IRIN, 'Are we heading for another food crisis? ', 2 March 2010. Available at

[6] Pete Harrison, 'EU drafts reveal biofuel's "environmental damage" ', Reuters, 4 March 2010, available at:

[7] Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority (EECA), The Sustainability of Brazilian Sugarcane Bioethanol: A Literature Review, May 2008, p 6.

[8] Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand, Submission on the Biofuel Bill, 30 January 2008, paras 9-10.

[9] Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand, Submission on the Sustainable Biofuel Bill, 11 September 2009, para 10.

[10] Msgr Celestino Migliore, Statement of the Holy See at the 64th session of the United Nations General Assembly on Item 53: Promotion of New and Renewable Sources of Energy, 3 November 2009.

[11] Msgr Celestino Migliore , Address at the High-Level Segment of the United Nations Economic and Social Council, 2 July 2008.

[12] Msgr Celestino Migliore, Intervention by the Holy See at the 15th Session of the Commission on Sustainable Development of the United Nations Economic and Social Council, 10 May 2007.

[13] Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand, Submission on the Biofuel Bill, 30 January 2008, para 13.

[14] Pope Benedict XVI, Message for the World Day of Peace 2010, para 9.

[15] Pope Benedict XVI, Message for the World Day of Peace 2010, para 5.