Not All Renewable Energy Is Created Equal

Renewable energy is hot right now. Maybe it's because renewables are rapidly becoming more affordable. Maybe it's because President Obama's recent publicity push surrounding his Clean Power Plan is driving interest in climate action. Or perhaps it's because Americans are fascinated by enigmatic entrepreneurs, and Elon Musk of Solar City and Tesla battery ambitions, seems to fit the bill. This discussion is badly needed and should be welcomed.

Watching at least some presidential candidates competing over whose renewable energy plan is best is progress - even if some of them are still ignoring climate change. But plans to promote renewable energy should be carefully crafted and considered. Not all sources of renewable energy are the same. And not all types of renewable energy will benefit the environment or people and communities.

For many, renewable energy is "good" energy - after all, it's not made from fossil fuels so it must be good for the environment and for people, right? Unfortunately, that's not always the case. When evaluating energy sources, we must not only consider greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change, but other environmental impacts such as biodiversity, and air and water quality. Equally if not more important is the impact that producing this energy has on people and communities. Renewable energy policies must be crafted to support technology that meets all of these thresholds.

Many types of solar and wind energy do indeed fit the bill. But n the other hand, corn ethanol and other first generation biofuels fail most, if not all, of these tests.

Food-based biofuels contribute to hunger and undermine land rights around the world. They do this by diverting food crops, and agricultural inputs, to fuel production instead of food. The inflexible demand created by government mandates creates an upward pressure on prices, making food prices more unstable and raising them in the long term. Whether or not people can pay for food is a big part of why nearly 800 million people around the world are chronically malnourished.

At the same time, land-intensive biofuels also help drive land grabs in developing countries, where smallholder farmers - who produce most of the food for local markets - are forced off their land, to make way for large mono-crop plantations.

But that's not all. Corn ethanol also has a number of negative impacts on our environment. The demand for corn ethanol helps drive the expansion of agricultural land. But in changing the way the land is used to grow more crops, we are creating more emissions, particularly if the cleared land is established grassland or forests. Those emissions, combined with the emissions for the production and burning of ethanol, undermine any greenhouse gas emissions savings that this "renewable" fuel may have been provided.

But it doesn't stop there. In order to get the corn to grow, we used more nitrogen fertilizer, but this runs off the fields, polluting our local waterways. Crop-based biofuels also promote large mono-crop plantations, which undermine biodiversity and disrupt local ecosystems.

Taking all of this evidence together, surely it's past time to reform policies such as the Renewable Fuel Standard, which promote food-based biofuels that have such clear environmental and human costs?

Don't get me wrong, transitioning to renewable energy is vital to our future. In fact, a transition to clean, affordable, reliable and safe renewable energy is a key part of the People's Test on Climate, which lays out civil society's red lines for the ongoing international climate negotiations that will culminate in Paris at the end of this year. But our experience with food-based biofuels must be a reminder that, even with a "renewable" label, energy sources must be closely examined and their impacts on both the environment and communities accurately assessed. The world, and its most vulnerable people, cannot afford anything less.