Lord Monckton’s genocidal overkill

The National Times | Jan 28, 2010

Christopher Monckton’s rhetorical tilts against wind turbines might be regarded as humorously quixotic, but his spinning of deeply flawed American and European biofuel policies into a blanket denuciation of all climate change action, accusing “environmental extremists” of “eagerly” starving to death millions of the world’s poor, is no laughing matter. At best this argument is recklessly simplistic; at worst it is deliberately disingenuous.

The 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, dubbed the high priest of climate scepticism, has been using the genocide line for effect since late 2008, most recently in his “open letter” to Kevin Rudd last month in which the Prime Minister was similarly berated for advocating policies “killing people by the million”.

Monckton is not the first person to link biofuels to genocide (Fidel Castro, for example, did so in April 2007) or to call using food for fuel a crime against humanity (the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, called it such in October 2007). In Monckton’s own nation, Guardian columnist George Monbiot warned as early as 2004 that biofuels could lead to humanitarian and environmental disaster.

“Every potential solution must be handled carefully,” said Al Gore, the man climate sceptics most love to hate, at the first Biofuels Congress of the Americas held in Buenos Aires in May 2007. The twin dangers of biofuel production if not pursued carefully, he said, were further deforestation and the driving up of food prices. Greenpeace, the Worldwide Fund for Nature, Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club and so on are all in furious agreement: food crops should not be used to fuel vehicles. Nonetheless, Monckton still wants Gore and his fellow “environmental extremists” arrested, tried and jailed for crimes against humanity.

That the diversion of food crops to biofuel production has been the main contributor the doubling of staple food prices in recent years need not be disputed, though Monckton’s crediting that rise to “a sharp drop in world food production, caused by suddenly taking millions of acres of land out of growing food for people who need it” is a less than accurate representation of the document he cites as his reference.

The World Bank Development Prospect Group’s 2008 policy research working paper on rising food prices indicates the problem is less to do with lower supply than higher demand. It attributed 70-75 per cent of price rises to biofuel-driven demand “and the related consequences of low grain stocks, large land use shifts, speculative activity and export bans”. It identifies US and European Union subsidies, mandates and import tariffs to promote domestic biofuel production as the main problem.

The supreme irony of the US and EU policies is that they have resulted in biofuel production from sources (corn in the the case of the US, rapeseed in the case of the EU) with no environmental benefit.

Research suggests that making biofuel from these crops actually creates more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional petrol. One study led, by the Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, estimates the relative warming due to nitrous-oxide emissions from rapeseed-derived biodiesel is one to 1.7 times larger than the relative cooling effect due to saved fossil carbon-dioxide emissions. For corn bioethanol, dominant in the US, the figure is 0.9 to 1.5. According to Crutzen: “Only cane-sugar bioethanol – with a relative warming of 0.5 to 0.9 – looks like a better alternative to conventional fuels.”

Not only that but according to the aforementioned World Bank report, the use of sugar cane to produce ethanol (as is the case in Brazil, the world’s second-largest ethanol producer after the US) did not contribute appreciably to raising food commodities prices. Brazil’s ethanol production is also lower cost than US or EU production. The report concludes: “Removing tariffs on ethanol imports in the US and EU would allow more efficient producers such as Brazil and other developing countries, including many African countries, to produce ethanol profitably for export to meet the mandates in the US and EU.”

Thus the problem with what Monckton calls the “biofuels scam” has more to do with the longer-standing problem of European and US agricultural subsidies and tariffs. No such nuance, nor acknowledgement of the relative merits of biofuels derived from non-food sources and the great potential of so-called second- and third-generation biofuels made from crop waste, is to be found in Monckton’s writings. He has made no call on behalf of the world’s poor for the EU and US to end their far wider distortion of global agricultural markets, which so hurts the least economically developed nations. No, far easier rhetoric to simply blame “environmental extremists” than to identify the real drivers of the policies that are making life worse for the world’s poorest for little or no environmental benefit.

By rights, far higher on Monckton’s black list should be the former US president George Bush, whose administration ramped up subsidies for corn-derived ethanol less to tackle carbon emissions from fossil fuels – since, to reiterate the point, producing biofuel from corn produces more greenhouse emissions than petrol – than for the domestically expedient purposes of reducing US dependency on imported oil while providing a fine-sounding pretext to continue the massive subsidies paid to corn farmers in America’s rural heartland.

In Europe, while global warming has at least in theory been the main motivation for promoting biofuels, the reality is that, as in the US, the more immediate political concerns of energy security and soaking up surplus production from a heavily subsidised agricultural sector have also shaped biofuel production incentives. According to Ewout Deurwaarder, of the Energy Research Centre of the Netherlands, in most cases farmers organisations, not environmental activists, are at the forefront of the biofuels lobby.

So whatever criticisms might be made of the more extreme elements of the environmental movement – the types who want all coal-fired power stations shut down yesterday or for the world to emulate China’s totalitarian one-child policy – enthusiasm for turning food crops into biofuel as a carbon reduction strategy or a desire to keep European and American farmers on the land are not two of them.

The question must therefore be asked if Monckton’s heart-wrenching descriptions of Haitians eating mud pies is pathos or bathos, if the hungry masses have become mere grist for his ideological mill, walk-on extras deployed in a pantomime narrative of evil versus good, in which (to use his colourful phrasing from an address to a climate sceptics conference in December) the environmental movement is now humankind’s deadliest enemy while he and his fellow do-nothing advocates are the defenders of the age of enlightenment and reason, bravely upholding the truth and courageously facing down the forces of darkness.

A novel case, indeed, of tilting at windmills.

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