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Biofuels: heroes or villains?

Updated Thursday 13th March 2008

Biofuels were hailed as the great hope of sustainable energy, particularly for cutting CO2 emissions from transport. But they have suddenly shifted from hero to villain.

They’re seen as an environmental threat, accelerating rain forest clearance for palm oil production and pushing people into starvation as lucrative biofuel plantations replace much needed food crops.

The problem isn’t so much with biofuels themselves, but more about politicians desperately seeking an easy, quick solution to the climate change problem. Biofuels seem to offer such a quick, easy win: within two years, the UK government intends biofuels to make up 5% of petrol and diesel used, and the EU announced last month plans for 10% of all Europe’s energy to come from plants by 2020.

There are some biofuel quick wins. In a number of cities, waste cooking oil is collected from restaurants and processed into fuel. That’s great, but quantities are relatively small. Some biofuels have been around for a long time (e.g. Brazil has produced ethanol from sugar cane for decades). But there are good and bad biofuels. Researchers have known for years that there are energy efficient ways to produce biofuels and other ways that are awful. Biofuel from maize uses as much energy in growing and processing as comes out at the end. The USA’s use of ethanol from maize is more an excuse to subsidise farmers than anything about the environment.

Rainforest Action Group protest against 'agrofuels' Creative commons image Icon Rainforest Action Group under CC-BY-NC licence under Creative-Commons license
The Rainforest Action Group protest against biofuels outside a 2009 California Air Resources Board meeting

The sort of biofuels around now that can provide big volumes of fuel tend to be the less efficient ones, or use tropical nuts, leading to issues of rainforest clearance and food crop displacement. Diesel from rapeseed comes out quite well, but it is the so-called ‘second generation’ biofuels that use the whole plant which are most energy efficient. These include plants like grasses and wood, but such technologies are only just coming on stream.

For the UK, biofuel from wood offers a real win-win. We have put a lot of land into set-aside and are planting it with trees. Using such areas to produce coppiced wood for biofuel would not take land from food production or impact on developing nations. But this is a medium-long term response and will only build up production slowly. The Energy Research Centre’s 2007 report on carbon abatement in transport summed this up:

“Biofuels can occupy a segment of the UK fuel market but care must be taken not to expand demand too quickly, before crop breakthroughs and robust environmental safeguards are in place.”

Biofuels can be an energy hero, but not if the politicians blunder in and develop them inappropriately, trying to find a quick and easy way out of their climate change indecisiveness. Biofuels can play a role, but we need other tough environmental policies as well. Using biofuels as a smokescreen was bound to backfire. The real danger is that we’ll reject biofuels entirely because of such ineptitudes.

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