It's G8 time again

In Hokkaido, Japan, this week, staff from across Oxfam International will be lobbying governments, talking to the press, and periodically donning the ‘big heads’ – giant replicas of the G8 leaders, which we lug around from conference to conference. Dreaming up stunts for the big heads is one of the more fun bits of summitry, and provides an essential service to TV journalists. There’s nothing visually duller than men in suits sat in front of microphones.

Our full list of asks to the G8 leaders is contained in a recent paper, ‘Credibility Crunch’, but there’s one particularly urgent issue that needs sorting out – the mess over biofuels. As ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, another new paper (we do churn them out, don’t we?) by my colleague Robert ‘biofuel Bob’ Bailey explains, biofuels are neither a solution to climate change, nor a particularly effective response to the oil crisis. A couple of ‘killer facts’ to illustrate this:

· Analysis published in the journal Science calculates that the emissions from global land-use change due to the US corn-ethanol programme will take 167 years to pay back.
· If the entire corn harvest of the USA was diverted to ethanol today, it would only be able to replace about one gallon in every six sold in the USA.

But what biofuels undoubtedly do is take food away from the mouths of hungry people. A leaked study by the World Bankcalculates that up to 75% of the increase in global food prices – far more than previously thought – is accounted for by biofuels.

There is another, grubbier, motive for supporting biofuels that seldom surfaces in public debate, but definitely registers with policy makers – they provide a pretext for shoveling yet more subsidies into northern agribusiness.

The next stage in the debate has surely to be to move on from ‘for or against biofuels’ to agreeing ways to sort out the good biofuels from the bad and the best way to use them (e.g. to generate heat or electricity rather than stick in vehicle gas tanks). Within current biofuels, we need better tools to measure the real impact of biofuels on land-use and poverty; and these must also be applied to upcoming second and third generation biofuels. They could then become one useful tool in a much bigger toolkit, rather than a distraction or a development disaster.

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So will the G8 sort out an ineffective policy with horrible unintended consequences? One of the best people to consult is Sir Nicholas Bayne, an urbane, retired Whitehall mandarin who knows the G8 from the inside – he recalls carrying British finance minister Denis Healey’s briefcase to the first ever G8 in 1975 Château de Rambouillet on the outskirts of Paris and has, I believe, attended every one since.

In a brilliant analysis of the 2005 Gleneagles G8, which agreed big increases in aid and debt relief, Bayne argued that G8 summits often only achieve progress through iteration – the same issue returning year after year to the summit agenda. The 2005 summit marked the fifth successive discussion on Africa, and made progress on aid (although a good deal of backsliding has gone on since – this year’s G8 needs to hold leaders to their promises). Climate change, on the other hand, had not figured on the G8 agenda since 1997 and made little progress at Gleneagles, but its reappearance on the agenda in subsequent years therefore hold out more hope for progress in Japan.

If true, Bayne’s analysis could augur ill for Hokkaido’s chances of dealing with biofuels and food prices – both are at first sight ‘new issues’ for the G8, although of course they are intimately linked to established agenda items such as Africa and climate change. Let’s hope G8 leaders have the vision to realize they are all interconnected, and act accordingly.

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