Greetings from Cancun!
We held a press conference here today in the climate negotiations, on the subject of "Biofuels, Bioenergy and Biochar: false solutions lead to land-grabbing." I thought I would share with you a very interesting presentation from Silvia Ribero of ETC Group. Silvia spoke about the new "Bioeconomy" and how industry is looking to replace "black carbon" (ie fossil fuel oil and coal) with "green carbon" (living matter from trees, biofuels, biochar and biotechnology) for fuel, plastic and other material needs.
This is being presented as a "green" solution - but it actually means the burning of greenery rather than the nurturing of it! With new developments in Synthetic Biology, also known as "extreme genetic engineering", scientists are seeking to construct new genomes in laboratories to create entirely new organisms. There is a particular focus on biofuels, which is where some industrialists see there is money to be made.
The infamous venture capitalist, J. Craig Venter, creator of the first synthetic genome earlier this year, gives us an insight into their thinking: "Whoever produces abundant biofuels could end up making more than just big bucks - they will make history... The companies, the countries, that succeed in this will be the economic winners of the next age to the same extent that the oil-rich nations are today."
Up until now, it has been difficult to make biofuels from trees, as wood contains cellulose, which is not easy to convert into liquid fuel. Synthetic biologists envision creating organisms that can digest cellulose for conversion into biofuel. And for their vision to become real, they will need vast amounts of living matter, known as "biomass" to feed their fuel supply. The land grabs, deforestation and hunger that we have seen with the rush for Biofuels, could be driven harder with this transition to the new "Bioeconomy". 86% of the world's vegetation is based in the tropics and sub-tropics. So it's not hard to guess where the focus of this new drive will be.
Not only is there the risk to forests, farmland and peoples from conversion into biomass, but when combined with the risks of "extreme genetic engineering", the implications could be staggering. What if, for example, a synthetic organism designed to consume woody biomass was to escape into the environment? We have already seen how GMOs cannot be contained, and escapes from laboratories are far from uncommon. The possibilities are nightmarish.
The myth that biomass can be "carbon neutral" means that such thinking is gaining currency in discussions about climate change. As with biofuels, the claim is that carbon released by the burning of fuel is balanced by replacement plants growing and capturing carbon again, resulting in no net emissions of carbon dioxide. But as scientists have show with biofuels, the process of land conversion, deforestation, processing and transport means that total emissions can actually be far greater than even fossil fuels.
It is important to understand the distinction between the Biodiversity-based economies and the Biomass-based economies. The Biomass-based economy only sees the value of living organisms at the basest level of carbon stocks. They reduce the view of nature to its market potential, use patented technology, and encourage large-scale monocultures, plantations, forest destruction and land clearance. Those that value biodiversity, however, encourage diversity and recognise the different individual values of plants and animals with specific properties and uses. Biodiversity is used and valued at a human-scale by communities, on their own terms.
So what can we do about this? Well, I suspect that much of the good work that may organisations are already doing to challenge Genetic Engineering, Biofuels and Biochar will all help towards mitigating this threat. But we need to be aware of the dialigue that is emerging, and challenge it where it appears! Don't fall for the "Bioeconomy" myth!
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