September 08, 2007

Biofuels: for life, not for climate change

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A year and a half ago, in an attempt to salvage some credibility for my embattled employer the RPA, I evangelised about the wonders of biofuels. It seems like I got a bit carried away.

Western governments are loving biofuels – oilseed rape, ethanol and the like – and have made them a key weapon in their battle against climate change by setting some ambitious targets for their use (the European Union wants 10% of transport fuel to be bio by 2020).

In recent months, however, it’s become apparent that they’re not all they’re cracked up to be. Several scientific studies have reported some flaws and unpleasant side-effects:
- biofuel growth will reduce the amount of land used for food crops so prices will rise, creating “agflation”;
- the orang-utan is facing extinction because farmers in Borneo are destroying rainforests to plant palm trees, the oil of which is in great demand;
- the energy output of a field of biofuel crops isn’t that great;
- the actual effect biofuels will have on combating climate change is pretty negligible. In theory, they’re carbon-neutral – burning them only releases carbon dioxide that was already in the atmosphere before the plants were grown. But in practice there are further emissions involved in the production process. And most green fuel for vehicles consists of 85% or more fossil fuels anyway. (see above link)

Governments have seen the “carbon-neutral” and “renewable” labels, thought it meant the same as “zero-carbon”, and championed biofuels as a panacea to global warming without thinking about how it would work and how the agriculture sector would be affected.

Which is not to say biofuels are totally evil; it’s just that our leaders have managed to conflate global warming with the oil running out. The fact that they’re renewable is good – it’s an area that deserves support to develop. But we shouldn’t chuck targets and public money at producing biofuels until the technology makes them viable.

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