Environmentalists slam biofuels strategy

South Africa's proposed biofuels industry, which the government sees as a means of reducing climate-changing carbon emissions from South Africa's motor vehicles, will raise more problems than it will solve, say environmentalists.

They say to grow food crops to fuel cars, without taking steps to reduce carbon emissions by enforcing fuel efficiency of vehicles, is immoral.

They were reacting to the recent cabinet approval of a draft biofuels strategy which will make it mandatory to include 4,5 percent of biofuels in transport fuel by 2013.

Biofuels, made from grains and oilseeds, are regarded by many as "carbon neutral" because the carbon emitted when biofuels are burnt is cancelled out by the carbon the plants absorb while growing.

Mark Botha, director of conservation at the Botanical Society of South Africa, said this was a myth. "One thing that comes out strongly in George Monbiot's book Heat is that we have to take a hard, fact-driven approach to climate change mitigation.

"If you look at the energy that goes into the cultivation of the plants, biofuels are probably carbon positive (produce more carbon than the plants absorb). If they are carbon positive, what is the point?"

An extra 1,3 to three million hectares of grain and oilseed crops will have be grown to feed the industry. "To expand any new crop by three million hectares will have a massive environmental impact. We don't have the water or soils to do this, and we have food security issues as it is. Growing food crops to fuel cars is immoral," Botha said.

The government should be enforcing fuel efficiency of motor vehicles as a means of reducing carbon emissions. South Africa had set no targets for fuel efficiency. It should also be improving public transport and moving road freight to railways, Botha said.

Glenn Ashton of Safeage believes the biofuels industry will put world food security at risk. "You've got cars owned by wealthy people, competing against the food security of the poor," he said.

Biofuels should be manufactured from non-food plants, like algae, he said.

Leslie Liddell of Biowatch said many were concerned that the government had drawn up the draft biofuels policy with no input from civil society.

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