On the Indonesian island of Bali, thousands of senior government officials are negotiating a plan to slow global warming. The meeting, which will focus on how to limit the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, will run for the first two weeks of December and include 192 countries. This year's conclave is the 13th in a series launched by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that came into force in 1994.
The coal, gas and oil companies that are major producers of greenhouse gases are finally taking notice of these high-level political discussions, and many have mounted spirited public relations exercises to defend themselves, and even win endorsements of their products.
For example, the weekend before negotiations began, Neste Oil announced plans to build the world's largest bio-diesel facility a few hundred miles northeast of Bali, in the Tuas industrial zone on the island of Singapore. The Finnish company is betting that widespread concern, as well as mandatory limits on greenhouse gases generated by fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum, will increase demand for vegetable-based fuels.
Neste's proposed $800 million plant will use palm oil, which is readily available throughout the region. The company has pledged to buy palm oil certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil and to use proprietary NExBTL technology that produces fuel with lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions 40 to 60 percent less than those of conventional diesel fuel.
"We have a very clear principle that we are aware of the source of all raw materials used in our biodiesel, including palm oil ... and that it is produced by sustainable methods," Neste CEO Resto Rinne told reporters, explaining that he expected this market to expand substantially. "In Europe alone, [annual] production will be well over 10 million tons by the end of the decade, and our share of this production will be some 800,000 tons."
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ÂSome environmental groups charge that Neste's claims are "greenwash": misleading public relations masking unsustainable practices. Greenpeace, for example, explains that the new plant in Singapore is likely to cause more environmental problems, not fewer, by increasing demand for new palm oil plantations that displace environmentally sensitive forests or wetland areas. In addition to destroying endangered habitats, the scheme could exacerbate global warming.
"Certification does not stop the rainforests from disappearing, for there is no doubt that the increase in demand for palm oil will lead to further destruction of rainforest. There is absolutely no way to grow enough sustainable palm oil for all the producers," said Harri Lammi, the program director for Greenpeace Finland. The week before the climate meeting got underway in Bali, his group attempted to highlight Neste's environmental record by blockading its ships in waters off of Finland.
The clash between Neste and Greenpeace highlights one of the key ideological debates over climate change: Business and politicians believe that a "technological" fix such as alternative fuels can solve the problem and also generate profits; many environmental groups believe the real solution to global warming lies in reducing consumption.
Guaranteed Markets, But Are They Guaranteed Green?
The arguments of the alternative fuel lobby are finding significant political backing. Earlier this year the European Union agreed to binding targets: By 2020, ten percent of its transportation industry's annual 300 million ton fuel consumption must come from alternatives such as biodiesel. China has predicted that it can switch 15 percent of its transport fuel consumption to biofuels, and India has set an ambitious target of 20 percent by 2020.
Even U.S. President George Bush in his January 2007 State of the Union address pledged to "increase the supply of alternative fuels by setting a mandatory fuels standard to require 35 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels in 2017 -- and that is nearly five times the current target."
Palm oil is one of the three key biofuels that governments and corporations are promoting as alternatives to fossil fuels. (The others are soy and rapeseed.) An edible vegetable oil obtained from the fruit of the oil palm tree, palm oil has been used as a popular cooking oil in West Africa for centuries. In recent years, it has become a key component of processed foods ranging from KitKat candy bars to Pringles potato chips to Oreo cookies.
The biggest producers of palm oil are Indonesia and Malaysia, where the crop has been grown on plantations established by British colonists in 1917. It was first exported for use as an industrial lubricant and as a base for Sunlight and Palmolive soaps.
The new green boom in biofuels has accelerated the demand for plantations, which in turn has led to widespread forest and peatland clearing. Indeed, a 2007 United Nations Environment Program report earlier this year, found that oil palm plantations are now the leading cause of forest destruction in Indonesia and Malaysia. And more is to come: The Indonesian government wants to put 10 million hectares of land into oil palm cultivation by 2015, up from the current total of 6 million hectares. In Malaysia, palm oil producers are targeting the island province of Sarawak for major expansion.
Local groups have spoken out strongly against this new trend. Meena Raman, head of Friends of the Earth Malaysia, said "Agrofuels is a disaster in the making. Their production, development and trade largely stem from unsustainable energy demand in industrialized countries. We are strongly urging our government to reconsider its decision of turning Malaysia into a major agrofuel producing country, as it is leading to further destruction of our forests and violations of the customary rights of indigenous peoples."
A new Greenpeace report, "Cooking the Climate," points out that razing of forests to create the oil palm plantations is, in itself, a major cause of greenhouse gas emissions. The environmental organization calculates that the burning and drying of carbon-rich peatlands on the Indonesian island of Riau releases about 1.8 billion tons of greenhouse gases a year. The removal of the forests also eliminates one of the planet's crucial air-filtration systems.
A British government report estimated that clearing land for agro-fuel cultivation creates two to nine times more greenhouse gases than the cleaner-burning fuel saves.
Fossil Fuels in Green Packaging
Another company ratcheting up the green rhetoric on climate change is General Electric (GE). Its television advertisement for "clean coal" technologies portrays scantily-clad models working in a coal mine, while an announcer sums up the message: "Thanks to emissions reducing technology from GE Energy, harnessing the power of coal is looking more beautiful every day."
The ad is part of GE's "ecomagination" campaign to promote "green" products such as lower-energy houses, wind turbines, solar power and water-purification systems, as well as a range of new coal technologies.
The company has joined the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a coalition of industry and environmental groups that claim to be concerned about global warming. "The time has come for constructive action that draws strength equally from business, government, and non-governmental stakeholders," said Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of Connecticut-based GE, in a statement timed for the day before George Bush's backing of alternative technologies.
While some of the technologies GE sells -- such as wind and solar power -- are indeed carbon neutral, others -- such as its "clean coal" integrated gasification combined-cycle coal power plants -- are questionable.
The term "clean coal" refers to a variety of new technologies under development: chemically washing the fossil fuel of minerals and impurities, burning it at higher pressure and temperature, and increasing efficiency by trapping and burning waste gases that would otherwise have escaped out the smokestack. Another "clean coal" technology is "carbon capture and sequestration," or CCS, which captures coal plant emissions before they enter the atmosphere, and stores them underground.
Many environmental activists note that these "clean coal" technologies are only marginally more efficient and far more expensive. Others, such as CCS, are still on the drawing board and may never work. (In fact, GE has yet to convince any of its clients to buy these new "clean coal" plants, according to California-based Rainforest Action Network, or RAN.)
"Why waste billions of dollars to research an uncertain technology when safer, cleaner energy solutions already exist?" asks Matt Leonard of RAN. "Even if we could capture coal's dangerous emissions, why create such massive waste streams in the first place? All fossil fuels, including coal, are running out. The longer we keep relying on them, the worse off our environment, climate, and society will be."
Immelt has admitted that the new promotion campaign was based on tapping public opinion and profits. "I can't lay claim to be a big environmentalist or nature lover here," the GE head told NBC television this May. "I know that when society changes its mind, you'd better be in front of it, and not behind it. And this is an issue on which society has changed its mind. I came to the conclusion that technology that my company makes can help make it [the climate situation] better, and I can make money doing it, and I can do something good."
Do Nothing, Collect Praise
Other companies have managed to win environmental praise for effectively doing nothing. A case in point is the much heralded $45 billion purchase of Texas state utility TXU by private equity firm Kohlberg, Kravis and Roberts and Texas Pacific Corporation. The buyers won backing from Washington DC-based environmental groups Environmental Defense and the Natural Resources Defense Council in exchange for scrapping plans to build eight of 11 proposed coal plants.
Not everybody is convinced. RAN executive director Michael Brune is skeptical of the scheme, pointing out that TXU could easily shelve its concessions in the future. "The commitments by TXU's new owners should be binding, not voluntary, and the three Texas coal plants TXU still intends to build are three plants too many," he said.
Warning: Greenwash Ahead
The cases of TXU's non-binding concessions in Texas, GE's amorphous "clean coal" promises, and Neste's palm oil strategy in South Asia illustrate a widening trend: As the climate change issue becomes mainstream, more and more companies are jumping on the public relations bandwagon. If these examples serve as models, they will try to win endorsements for agreeing to do nothing, promise things that they cannot guarantee, and take advantage of the debate to profit from environmentally unfriendly technologies.
Activists attending the Bali gathering say that the real answer to climate change will not be generated by profit-motivated corporations, but by the concrete commitments of political leaders backed by the force of law. Raman of Friends of the Earth International, puts it simply: "We need Northern countries to develop stringent policies to reduce their energy consumption and attempt to find solutions to their energy needs locally."
This article was made possible by a generous grant from the Hurd Foundation.
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