Expensive Tortuous Paths in Climate Protection: Agrofuel and Counter­productive Water Power Projects

The climate balance of agrofuels is negative; and even the climate balance of certain waterpower projects; however the loss in biodiversity caused by these projects is at least as bad as the climate balance; apart from the negative influence on food production.

In Brazil the work on the Belo Monte barrage has already begun. Once it should be completed it will be the worlds third largest dam behind the Three-Canyon-Dam in China and the Itaipñ barrage near the border of Brazil and Paraguay. For the construction of the barrage 20.000 people and some Indian tribes who live alongside the river need to be resettled. An area of thousands of square kilometers will become flooded.

Where that would lead can already be seen at the barrage of Balbina in the north of Manaus. 230,000 ha of rain forest have been flooded there; millions of empty tree trunks are rotting in the water. The rotting process of the plant remains unleashes methane a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more effective than carbon dioxide. For at least 41 years the retaining dam would cause more damage to the climate than the usage of fossil fuels.

However not just the climate balance of the dam is negative. If all the planned 60 mega dams and 100 barrages of medium size would be realized in the Brazilian Amazon an irreversible loss of species would be the consequence. The riversides and the rivers are not only settlement areas and arterial traffic routes for the people but also many animals like skimmers, sea swallows and turtles need the sand banks along the riversides to breed or to lay their eggs. If the given enlargement plans were realized about 1000 fish species would die out. This amounts to 10% of all fish species world-wide.

All of it just to establish energy intense industry on the Amazon. The energy is not needed by households. That way new aluminium smelting works are planned. Not just that larger areas of virgin forest needs to be destroyed in order to mine the bauxite. If we have a look on what is happening at the worlds largest aluminium refinery in Barcarena, Para in the Amazon the environmental pollution is even more hard. White aluminium powder is spreading over kilometers, perpetuates in the soil and has lead to fish mortality the way that the nets remain empty. Some years ago there were heavy rain falls and the toxic waste red mud landfill extending here up to the horizon has overflown and contaminated the ground water.

The local communities do not have a water supply there; they bathe, wash themselves in and drink the poisoned water that does not only cause skin irritations. The people living in the area of the factory do not get work there because they have no education. This though all the workers fall chronically ill sooner or later.

The red mud is what is left over from the aluminium production after the aluminium hydroxide has been deposited with caustic soda the strongest known lye. The half of the Periodic Table of the Elements including mercury, arsenic and other heavy metals fall out into the poisonous and caustic red mud. However even the aluminium hydroxide (AlO3) is allergenic and neurotoxic. Afterwards it will be further processed by energy intense electrolysis to obtain raw aluminium.

In spite of several protests and suspensions of building work the Brazilian government has adhered to the over-sized and damaging large scale project of Belo Monte which has in the meantime been completed by May 2016. The usage of energy intensely yielded aluminium for tins and packages is pure waste. Nonetheless it is also used in certain cosmetic products (deodorants) where it is under strong suspicion to cause cancer and even in drugs and vaccines.

After worldwide protests and after the corrupt mega project Belo Monte has turned out to be little profitable a new hydrodam project at the Rio Tapajós, home of the Mundurukú people in Brazil could be stopped successfully. Read more about it at elstel.org. The hydrodam project at the Rio Tapajós was hopefully forever the last one that the Brazilian government wanted to realize.

It is sad that Berta Cáceres, leader of the Lenca Indians in Honduras, Central America, has been murdered for opposing a hydrodam project that would have destroyed the home of the Lenca Indians, although she had been awarded the Goldman price for environmentalists before. Fortunately the assassination has been unveiled in the meantime and Castillo Mejía the boss of the firm against whose dam project´s Berta was the most vibrant critic has been arrested.

Large parts of Borneo´s rainforest in South East Asia have already fallen victim to deforestation and plantations. Even worse the Sarawak government has developed plans for the construction of up to fifty hydrodams amounting to a capacity of 20,000 megawatts though the current demand for the whole of Sarawak is no more than 1,500 megawatts. The government is dreaming of massive industrial projects, such as aluminium smelting works. In 2011 the Bakun Dam with a rating of 2,400 megawatts one of the biggest in Asia went online. Sarawak´s chief minister, Taib Mahmud, is profiting directly from the dams over family holdings in companies that have received contracts from Sarawak Energy.

The indigenous peoples of Sarawak have already learnt what dams mean for them: the loss of their land, their culture and their identity, followed by a life with no prospects. The Bakun Dam not only led to the flooding of nearly 700 square kilometres of rainforest but caused 10,000 indigenous inhabitants to be driven away from their homes at the end of the 1990s.

Currently the Sarawak government seems to be at a loss in the face of the unexpected resistance in the Baram region. Hundreds of indigenous inhabitants have been successfully mobilised for blockades and protests by the Save Sarawak Rivers Network (SAVE Rivers) and the Bruno Manser Fund. Thanks to this effective resistance, work on the planned Baram Dam has already been delayed.

On the Indonesian rather than the Malaysian side of Borneo or Kalimantan as the island is also called there exist projects for five dams affecting 184,270 hectares with large tracts of pristine forests. The construction of the first 900 megawatt hydrodam at the Kayan river by the Chinese state-owned utility company China Power Investment (CPI) has begun in Northern Kalimantan in 2017. The project has so far generated little public outcry though it affects the culture of the island’s indigenous peoples, including the Dayak Kayan who have lived along the river’s banks for centuries.

Lately in 2018 the Indonesian government is being pressured to release a permit for building a 175 meter high hydrodam in Aceh flooding an area of more than 4,000 hectars in the mids of the Leuser Ecosystem one of the worldwide biodiversity hotspots which is currently under environmental protection. Besides fresh drinking water, these rivers provide the irrigation essential for subsistence rice farming and fisheries, a critical source of livelihood. Even worse the hydrodam is in a location known for earthquakes and tsunamis, placing 250,000 citizens at risk of a man-made disaster. You may read 'Confessions of an Economic Hit Men' from John Perkins to see how evil policy makers in developing countries are pressurized to incur debts on large infrastructure projects. In South America heads of the state have been assassinated.

Another highly controversial hydrodam project is located in Turkey: the Illisu water barrage. The historical site Hasankeyf and the famous rock caves may sink in the floods forever. The Tigris is planned to be retained in a 125 meter high and 2 kilometers long barrage. About a hundred of villages will sink in the floods.

Downstream in the Iraq the marsh land between the Euphrat and the Tigris near the river mouth could dry out. That had already happened after the Marsh Arabs have rebelled against Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf war. Saddam let retaining dams be built to turn the land of the Marsh Arabs into desert. Since 2003 the area has renaturalized and the birds have returned since the people have pulled wholes into the retaining dam in order to live their traditional lives again. The area is a bit larger than Belgium and has been the cradle of our civilization at the time of the ancient Sumerians 6000 years ago.

However far not enough with all of that. In the behalf of climate protection agrofuels are still cultivated although it is known for long that by accounting the necessary land usage the climate balance gets bad because new areas have to be cleared. Agrofuels are at least three times worse for the climate than mineral oil. The prioritized goal may however be further independence of fossil energy sources although it is also a wrong nation based climate legislation that allures to do so. If you buy agrofuels from overseas then you can reduce your own greenhouse gas balance and displace it to other countries. In Indonesia money from the Kyoto protocol is taken for the reforestation of previously slashed-and-burnt areas where plantations are planned. All of that could not happen with a world-wide integrative CO2 trade system if the price for emitting a ton of CO2 would be the same everywhere.

The main cause for this wrong development is nonetheless the dereliction of our politicians to assess the effects of a certain technique in advance. If they would have known in advance how fateful the ecological assessment of agrofuels, not to take other side effects into account, really is they would not have dared this step. For the sake of traffic, transit and mobility totally new solutions are required in order to reduce ghg (greenhouse gas) - emissions. In this area we have to catch up not just in scientific development in order to make the best out of a failed policy.

Let us have a look at Indonesia first. One of the biggest and most beautifully virgin rain forest areas is located here. The diversity of species is breath-taking. However more and more primeval forest has to give way to palm oil plantations. There are 7 millions of hectares of palm oil plantations in Indonesia today; up to the year 2020 it may be 20 millions of hectare. The orang utan which can only be found here on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra is an acutely endangered animal species. It is loosing its living space. Hundreds of orang utans are shot on the palm oil plantations trying to eat the seedlings as they can not find anything else.

However this is not the only issue. Child and forced labour reign on the plantations and poisonous pesticides are used. In order to reclaim new ground the primeval forest is slash-burnt at large scale. By drying out the peat soil and by firing them down with underground peat fires the whole amount of carbon dioxide that has been saved for thousands of years in the soil is released at once. In 2015 millions of hectare of rainforest have been burning in Indonesia. Palm oil producers had set various blazes to obtain new land. Even the neighboring countries Malaysia and Singapur were already covered by thick, unhealthy smoke. In Central Kalimantan there were so many soot particles in the air that it could pose a danger to life. Intan, a 9 year old girl, has collapsed on her way to school and died before she arrived in hospital (She was not the only one.).

All of that has nothing to do with climate protection. That way you achieve emissions that are 10 times higher than with firing fossil fuels. Just now these forests are what has been protecting our climate for long. By burning the peat soil grounds Indonesia has rosen to be the worlds third largest emitter of greenhouse gases.

In spite of all these facts the world-wide production of agrofuels is on the rise. The countries engaging the most in biofuel production are the EU, the USA, Brazil, China, Canada and Argentinia. The effects on the world climate, the diversity of species and the food supply are very bad. In the year 2007 already up to 4% of the area under cultivation were already used for agrofuels.

In 2018 members of the European Parliament have voted for an end of palm oil in agrofuels. The European Council of Ministers has not brought itself to do sth. about it before but conversly wanted to increase the quota of agrofuels in diesel oil. Unfortunately this resulted in an unprecedented lobbying campaign by Indonesia and Malaysia, the two biggest palm oil producers. Indonesia threatened Europe not to buy any plains manufactured by Airbus any more. Besides this an unilateral ban on palm oil would likely have violated WTO rules.

Finally the critics of the new rule have won so that a general end to palm oil in agrofuels is now planned with 2030. That is why EU member states are now required to do something about it. France has already abandoned palm oil in agrofuels with 2020. Austria has followed in July 2021 and Germany will exit in 2023. In 2020 the quota of 7% for agrofuels will cease to exist. When it concerns canola as source of biofuel the indirect land usage effects (ILU) need also to be taken into account because the area efficiency of canola is even less than that of palm oil (0.7 instead of 3.3 tons per hectare and year). The efficiency of soy is lowest with 0.4 tons per hectare and year for oil. The quota is a quota for renewables and it could also be met by green synthetic fuels made of wind and solar energy.

Stemming the destruction of forests by certifications is something that does not work at all in developing countries. That way peasants get evicted and slayed all over the world in order to clear the areas for new palm oil plantations. Indigenous folks from South America and Asia loose their base of life, something that will cause them to die. The protection of the primeval forests can never be achieved like this because even for the case that no more formerly wooden areas would be used for agrofuel and palm oil plantations then these areas would be used for food production instead of other formerly used areas which have gotten occupied by agrofuel production.

The escalation in the production of agrofuels has not only left its tracks overseas. It does also endanger several species in Europe and Germany. By the way that more and more fallow land has turned into farmland many birds and animals have lost their retreats and impend to disappear. That way the number of larch birds, peewits and hares has dramatically decreased in the UNESCO biosphere reserve Schorfheide-Chorin in the north of Berlin. Stork nests remain empty and even the lesser spotted eagle impends to stay away since maize fields with genetically manipulated maize from Monsanto have extended up to the watersides of the biosphere reserve.

Sprayed with highly poisonous and genotoxic Roundup-Ready, a weedkiller that is causing damage especially to consequential generations, the former grain fields resemble biological deserts by now. The insert of genetically manipulated crops can also endanger the food production because genes tend to cross out and cause malformations of natural crops (though claimed by Monsanto that this could not happen). Also dairy farming is negatively affected from the production of agrofuels. Since biogas plants can pay more than twice as much for the same area dairy farmers need to buy feeding stuff like haylage, maize and genetically manipulated Roundup-Ready soybeans planted on former rain forest areas from Brazil in addition.

Even if we do not take the indirect land usage effects into account only little energy is gained with the production of agrofuels because a major part is already wasted in advance by weedkillers, cultivation and harvest. The raw materials for chemical fertilizers are a world-wide limited resource we could run out of in the future like we will run out of oil some day. The deployment of chemical fertilizers releases laughing gas (N2O) a 300 times more effective greenhouse gas than CO2.

Biogas plants are true land killers. While 10,000 hectare of arable farm land are needed to supply 50,000 households only 400 ha would be required to install wind energy plants. The abolishment of land quiescence rewards is not just a loss for the efforts to save biodiversity but also endangers the soils by increased erosion and absent or lacking regeneration times.

Taking these factors into account the backdown of the EU in the sakes of agrofuels was the only right thing to do. Instead of establishing E10 the quota for agrofuels at least of the first generation was planned to be bounded by 5%; the production of agrofuels out of comestible plant parts is planned to be abolished. A percentage as high as this in the usage of biomass in the sector of traffic and transportation is not realizable at the current state of affairs.

While indirect or direct promotions for agrofuels continue it will be important to achieve a high utilization of the cultivated plants. The colza cake left over at canola production can be used as high-protein animal food reducing imports from rainforest areas, it leverages mould creation and can be seen as a recovery fruit for the soil; it is an important plant for the bees in spring.

Biomass could still give a certain contribution in our efforts to protect the climate. That counts for the generation of biogas out of agrarian waste and manure. The breeding of algae in wastewater treatment plants or with the C02 exhaust air from production plants may also be of future prospects. Certain energy plants could even be grown after the grain harvest before winter.

If there is any future for the production of fuels out of biomass for traffic and transportation needs to be put at doubt in spite of heavy investments already taken. The Fischer-Tropsch technique in order to produce liquid fuel out of coal as already applied in World War II has a low efficiency factor of about 40% so that the direct usage of biomass for heating or long-distance heatings yield accordingly higher savings in CO2 emissions.

In order to increase the efficiency factor of this technique the addition of hydrogen would be a necessity. The extraction of H2 at large scale by the electrolysis of water powered by solar energy can however be seen as illusively by the time as not even our industrial and domestic electricity supply is made up by renewables to a sufficiently large extent. The processing of cellulose out of straw and wood which accrues by paper and wood industry is in the meanwhile possible by newer procedures.

Certainly the solar power generation for the electrolysis of water could be done in vast desert areas with a much higher efficiency than in Northern Europe. Nonetheless this would constitute an enormous infrastructure project. A study presented in Nature and Science has calculated that 20% of the area of the Sahara for wind and solar energy were sufficient in order to fulfill the energy needs of the whole world. A positive side effect would be an increased rainfall in the Sahel zone as induced by higher temperatures near the ground in the Sahara areas under use.

About one fourth (13% 2007, 22% 2010) of all world-wide ghg-emissions amount to the sector of traffic and transit; and it would suggest itself to do something about it. The production of agrofuels has log-rolled the car industry so far as it could avoid to face major changes by alleged ghg-reductions.

Thereby the changeover from combustion engines to fuel cells would have a high potential of savings. This is because the efficiency of combustion engines is theoretically bounded to 54% while petrol engines can reach an efficiency of 38% while slow ship diesel engines reach an efficiency factor of up to 50%. The question remains with what kind of fuel future fuel cells should work.

We should care that pure hydrogen does not volatilize into outer space when a car remains parked for a longer time because the earth`s gravitation pull can not hold hydrogen. Synthetic oil made of CO2 and green hydrogen may be an alternative as H2 can also be explosive. Nonetheless hydrogen poses an important alternative for the near future. The first car models with fuel cells have already entered the market in Asia due to major advances. An additional advantage about hydrogen is that you just have pure water steam as waste gas.

Natural gas is flared off at large scale at oil production harming the local population by pollution. Any quantity of used natural gas saves energy and ghg-emissions as opposed to the large quantities just being flared off. It can be used to obtain ‘gray’ hydrogen.

A broad reduction of the land occupied by agrofuels would be direly necessary because the land use is currently world-wide on the increase especially due to an extended meat production and consumption caused by industrialized and newly industrializing countries. What happens in the European Union has an announcement effect on the rest of the world.

The preservation of our last primeval forests is not just a dire necessity because of the high ghg-emissions on forest clearing, slash-burning or flooding. Our last virgin rain forests do actually give shelter to thousands of unique species. The loss in biodiversity is irreversible and a hard loss for humankind; not just because of new plant and animal species for pharmaceutical or agricultural purposes but especially because they are the base of livelihood and living space for the local communities and because of climate change.

Wood plantations can bind 80% less CO2 than natural forests even long after the area has been cleared. Without intact natural forests the fight against climate change is lost. The Biosphere II experiment has ostentatively shown that the atmospheric balance can not be retained if almost all the land is used for agriculture; it had to be canceled because of high laughing gas concentrations. Forests bind CO2, supply us with fresh air and water evaporating and retaining water.

If the whole Amazonas was deforested then - not to talk about the global impact – vast areas in the north of Brazil would turn into steppe; there could even be 30% less rain over Sao Paulo in the very south. The deforestation of Amazonia will harm agriculture in the near future. Up to 2050 the yields in soja production could fall by 28% while the yields for pastureland would fall by 34% according to an article of the Environmental Research Letters.

The destruction of biodiversity and the slash-burning of peat soil are fatal. If the whole of Central Kalimantan would be turned into forest plantations that would cause a ghg-emission three times as high as the total global emissions in 2004; this are 15 times of the emissions of the EU and 100 times of the emissions of Germany per year.

The protection of biotop and living space and especially of our last primeval forests needs to be put on the agenda of national and international relations.

GHG emissions per economic sector
fig. 1: global greenhouse gas emissions by sector - IPCC 2014 with data from 2010
sources of worldwide GHG emissions
fig. 2: sources of global greenhouse gas emissions - IPCC 2014 with data from 2010