To: Detroit Workers' Voice mailing list
November 2, 2015
RE: Indonesia burns, and the promotion of biofuels is part of the problem
Thousands upon thousands of fires are burning in the rain forests of Indonesia. Some sources say 100,000 fires are raging over vast expanses of the country. (1) As result, "half a million people have suffered acute respiratory infections and 43 millions have been exposed to smoke. Several provinces have already declared emergencies, and Indonesia is considering declaring a national state of emergency to deploy resources to fight the fighters." (2)
The fires are a regional disaster, causing a haze of smog affecting not just Indonesia, but a number of other countries in Southeast Asia: Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Philippines. The fires are not just a regional disaster, but a global disaster, releasing fantastic amounts of carbon dioxide. On some days, the fires emit as much carbon dioxide each day as the entire US economy does in the same period. (3)
What horrible natural disaster started these fires? None at all. They were deliberately set. The aim is to clear away the forests to provide room for palm oil plantations and other uses. Year after year, these fires are set. This year climactic conditions have led to a monster smog, but this is hardly the first time it has occurred. The Southeast Asian haze of 1997 was particularly bad and attracted world attention. (4) And now, despite all the yearly conferences about global warming, another killer haze is back.
A couple of days ago the journalist and environmentalist George Monbiot wrote an article: "Indonesia is burning. So why is the world looking away?" (5) Monbiot says this is an eco-apocalypse, and asks why there isn't more attention to it.
But it and other articles leave out an important aspect of the problem. It's that this disaster is, in part, a result of the market measures that the bourgeoisie is still clinging to. This disaster, in fact, was in part prepared by the cap and trade system set up under the Kyoto Protocol. It is surreal, but this eco-apocalypse has been created, in part, by the measures that the neo-liberal bourgeoisie claims will solve the global warming problem. It used to be said that, "if you aren't part of the solution, you must be part of the problem". It turns out that if you're part of the solution, then you're still part of the problem - if it's the solution advocated by the neo-liberals.
The Kyoto Protocol on global warming marked a shift from the more successful Montreal Protocol on ozone depletion; it marked the emphatic endorsement of market measures and carbon pricing as the way to supposedly obtain environmental goals.
Now, the drastic cutback of carbon emissions would require a much greater change in the economy than the cutback in CFCs required under Montreal Protocol. It was no longer a question of a single sector of the economy, but of the economy of the whole. The Kyoto Protocol, however, avoided the idea of planning production so as to drastically cut carbon emissions, and instead relied on market measures, such as "cap and trade" and carbon credits, to achieve reductions. It relied on the corporations and the millionaire executives to decide what was best, if guided by market signals and desire for profit. What was the result?
With regard to palm oil, the logic of these measures was that palm oil is a renewable resource, and hence one should shift to using it. Under the market system, one doesn't look into how the palm oil is produced, and that having palm oil plantations replace peat swamp forests is an environmental disaster of the worst sort. Under the market system, it's not the buyer's responsibility how the palm oil was produced and how that effected the environment; the buyer is responsible only for whether palm oil is theoretically a renewable resource - only for the physical content of the palm oil.
History showed that the Kytoto Protocol and the EU Emissions Trading System contributed to the growth of the palm oil market and the continuing devastation of the Indonesian rain forests. They poured gasoline on the yearly fires in Indonesia, and they helped pave the way for similar catastrophes elsewhere. Indeed, scientists have been worrying for some time about the possibility of gigantic run-away fires that would threaten the complete collapse of the Amazon forest.
And if the Kyoto Protocol had used a carbon tax instead of cap and trade, the result would have been the same: the carbon tax would have encouraged the use of palm oil and the creation of plantations in Indonesia to produce it. By way of contrast, the Montreal Protocol may have been far from perfect, and it must be strengthened, but it did limit the damage to atmospheric ozone.
Eventually, if I remember right, there was eventual recognition by the EU that there was a problem with palm oil, but for years the Kyoto Protocol contributed to the destruction of Indonesian rain forests. This is one example of a fiasco of establishment environmentalism; it is one reason why we need to build a working class wing of the environmental movement, a section opposed to neo-liberalism and its market measures. It is not sufficient to simply recognize the danger of global warming: there must also be a struggle for effective measures and against the absurdities of the neo-liberal measures being proposed as the solution.
The problem with palm oil plantations has been discussed for a long time. For example, seven years ago, in February 2008, I wrote about what's going on in the Indonesian forests as follows (6):
Palm oil has become the most heavily used vegetable oil on the world market; in the last couple of years, world consumption of palm oil slightly exceeds even that of soybean oil. It is used both in food products and to make biodiesel; and as it has a high energy gain and a lot of palm oil can be obtained per acre of tropic forest, it might appear at first sight to be an excellent biofuel. Indeed, palm oil production is surging due in part to the increasing use of palm oil biodiesel in Malaysia, China, and the EU, while Indonesia sees the use of palm oil biodiesel as a way to cut down its imports of oil.
But the result is that large sections of the rainforests in Malaysia and Indonesia, two countries which supply over four-fifths of the world's palm oil, are being burned and cleared. Of course, this isn't only the result of palm oil, but also because of other cultivation and of logging. The capitalist market devastates the environment in a number of ways other than the fiascos of corporate environmentalism.
But there's still worse. These forests are in large part peatlands, which contain vast amounts of dead organic matter which haven't decomposed because the ground is too moist. They're huge carbon sinks. But when the forests are cleared, the ground begins to dry out, and it emits spectacular amounts of carbon dioxide. Largely for this reason, Indonesia is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases on the planet, exceeded only by the US and China. And biofuels plays its role in this: it is estimated that clearing peatlands to grow biofuels results in emitting thirty (yes, 30) times as much carbon dioxide as the use of these biofuels saves in replacing gasoline or diesel.
Yet importing palm oil from Indonesia is an acceptable way to achieve one's obligations under Kyoto and the EU ETS. Thus the EU ETS and other carbon trading schemes have intensified the danger to the world's forests; they end up encouraging the devastation of the environment. And this disaster is being brought to us in the name of curbing greenhouse gas emissions, while it actually increases those emissions. This is surreal; it would be a comedy if it weren't also a historic tragedy whose consequences will be felt for years and years to come.
For more on the need for the alternative to market measures and the need to build a militant working-class wing of the environmental movement, see the collection of articles at "The free market vs. the environment: Global warming, pollution, mass welfare, and the failure of market-based solutions". (7)
(1) Justin Worland, October 28, 2015, "How Indonesia's Fires Are Choking the World", http://time.com/4088640/indonesia-fire-health.
(2) Anthony Khun, November 1, 2015, "As Indonesia's Annual Fires Rage, Plenty of Blame But No Responsiblity",
(3) Brad Plumer, October 30, 2015, "How Indonesia's fires became one of the world's biggest climate disasters",
(4) Frank Arango, "Capitalist pollution in Southeast Asia", October 25, 1997, http://www.communistvoice.org/15cAsiaHaze.html.
(5) George Monbiot, October 30, 2015,
(6) Joseph Green, February 2008, "Al Gore's Nobel Peace Prize and the fiascos of corporate environmentalism",
http://www.communistvoice.org/41cAlGore.html. This article also has a section on the threatened destruction of the Amazon rainforest caused, in part, by the promotion of palm oil and sugar cane ethanol.
-- Joseph Green, editor, "Communist Voice" <> <>
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Posted on November 6, 2015