MANILA — In 2006, a "miracle tree” with poisonous seeds touted as the future source of biofuel caught the attention of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Arroyo had so much hope for jatropha, locally known as "tuba-tuba,” that she ordered the conversion of about 4,000 hectares of idle military land into plantations for the energy crop.
Jatropha could survive even in the most impotent soil, experts noted, and therefore would not encroach into agricultural lands reserved for the country’s food security.
The seedling program ran for several years until a catastrophic discovery: jatropha as biofuel source was not commercially viable.
The government was forced to abandon the project in 2011. The price tag for the failure was pegged at P1 billion.
Exploration on jatropha's biofuel viability was prompted by the Biofuels Act of 2006, a legislation considered ahead of its regional peers, which aimed, among others, for the development and utilization of indigenous renewable energy to mitigate toxic and greenhouse gas emissions.
But over a decade since the landmark law was passed, criticism has emerged questioning whether biofuels could in fact be considered sustainably-sourced clean energy and an alternative to ultra dirty fossil fuels.
'SACRIFICED FOR PROFIT'
“Biofuel becomes a false solution to climate change if it is used to replace supposedly fossil fuel at the expense of food security and biodiversity,” explained Renato Redentor Constantino, executive director of the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC), an international climate and energy policy group based in the Philippines.
"Sometimes you plant [biofuel crops] perversely, and old-growth forests are cut down to make way for these plantations, and that results in degrading ecology,” he added.
In commercializing biofuel, Constantino said, tracts of agricultural land are aggressively converted into monocrop plantations in order to produce biofuel at a massive scale.
These conversions of lands may result in the displacement of farmers from their croplands.
"Often times it is compounded by the fact that [the land was] owned by or used by indigenous people... So they are sacrificed at the altar of commercial solution to produce bioenergy, only to provide energy for those who should be using less," Constantino lamented.
Leon Dulce, national coordinator of Kalikasan People’s Network for the Environment (KPNE), cited the Arroyo era’s jatropha craze— and its failed promise— as one of the reasons why he remained skeptical over biofuels, which he called a "false solution" to climate change.
"Na-trap na tayo diyan dati nung nagkaroon ng jatropha craze, ang daming kinonvert na land for jatropha. Later on scientists would say na ang baba pala nung efficiency ng utilization nito as biofuel," Dulce told ABS-CBN News.
(Many were trapped during the jatropha craze, so many converted land for jatropha. Later on scientists would say that it has low utilization efficiency as biofuel.)
He said biofuel generation becomes problematic when it starts impinging on the rights of communities.
"Iyung framework ng Biofuels Act nga kasi is to push for its expansion through private investments. Kaya imbes na ang ginagawa mong expansion ay based lang don sa carrying capacity ng ecosystem, ito ay unbridled na nag-e-expand batay sa interes na kumita," Dulce said.
(The framework of the Biofuels Act is to push for its expansion through private investments. That's why instead of basing your expansion on the carrying capacity of the ecosystem, here the expansion was unbridled and based on profit.)
Aside from issues of displacing inhabitants, Dulce noted that communities are forced to bear the brunt of its side effects.
"Initially kikita 'yan upon selling or contracting out their lands pero dahil agro-chemical ang ginagamit, nasisira na ang productivity nila, may health impacts pa. Sino sasalo niyan? Eh di 'yung communities na nandon din, so hindi talaga siya productive for the majority," he said.
(Initially they will make profit upon selling or contracting out their lands but because they use agro-chemical, the productivity is affected, and there are health impacts. Who will bear that? The communities there, so it's really not productive for the majority.)
For these reasons, Dulce has ruled out biofuel as a sustainable source of clean energy in the Philippines.
He said the actual solution is phasing out main sources of emission. He said instead of addressing problematic coal-fired power plants, a solution that does not address the problem was created.
Despite the criticism, Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy, believes the government has remained faithful to the "true essence" of the Biofuels Act.
"The true essence of biofuel is [to] increase the productivity of farmers... It is really a balancing act because it has that food versus fuel dilemma, [but] there's a social benefit aspect because it helps the farmers directly and indirectly," Gatchalian said in a phone interview.
The conversion of molasses- thick brown residue derived from processing raw sugar- into ethanol was one of the examples of biofuel successes, added Gatchalian.
"Iyung sa sugarcane, 'yung molasses, walang bumibili niyan noon. Tinatapon lang 'yan. Ngayon ginagamit na 'yan bilang ethanol, a new source of fuel."
(Sugarcane, its molasses, no one bought that before. It was just discarded. But now it's being used as ethanol, a new source of fuel.)
Constantino of the ICSC said demonizing biofuel can be counterproductive, and called for more sobriety before making sweeping statements against it.
"It depends on the scale and feed… Unlike coal-fired power plants wherever you put that up it’s bad," he said.
"There are uses of bioenergy that are very beneficial to the community... The question is why are you using it, how are you using it."
This article was published through the support of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and Climate Tracker’s Climate Journalism Fellowship.