Europe continues ill-advised rush to biofuels

Just as there are risks in delaying policy action on an important issue like climate change, so there are dangers too in rushing to legislation before all the facts are known and understood. This has surely been the case with laws and incentives to increase the use of biofuels in transport – likely the most spectacular example of bad climate policy the world has seen so far. Stuck with biofuels policies dating back nearly ten years, the EU is desperately trying to make its legislation retrospectively sustainable in the barest environmental sense. But the evidence available suggests that it will fail – and that pro-biofuels measures should simply be repealed.

Fuelling poverty?

Evidence to date suggests that biofuels have not just been an environmental disaster, but a social one too – fuelling poverty by raising the price of foodstuffs and pushing millions of people into hunger as a result. Due to the perverse incentives of biofuels production, there are real social justice issues being raised, as the charity ActionAid asserts:

Biofuels targets are providing an incentive to large multinational companies to oust farmers in poor countries from their land. In just five African countries, 1.1 million hectares have already been given over to biofuels – an area the size of Belgium. And this is global land grab is affecting people all over the developing world. Just recently in Kenya, we have been working with people that are in danger of losing their land to a giant biofuel plantation, which once completed will result in up to six times more carbon emissions than fossil fuels.

The Kenya case is instructive, because it appears to be an especially egregious example of socially and environmentally-destructive biofuels development. The 50,000-hectare project would deforest a rare piece of coastal woodland – home to endangered birds as well as tribal people – in order to plant jatropha bushes which produce oil that can be used as a biofuel feedstock in Europe. A BBC correspondent visited the area in March, and it seems that local residents are indeed extremely unhappy about the proposal, as well they might be.

To give the EU its due, the Commission has made clear that it is aware of and concerned about the dangers of environmentally-destructive biofuels. The directive demanding 10% share of renewable fuels in transport by 2020 is “subject to production being sustainable [and] second-generation biofuels becoming commercially available”. Arguably, neither of these conditions are even close to being achieved. For the former, sustainability is extremely difficult to define – the Commission has tried to examine the potential for indirect land-use change via complex modelling studies, but these provide limited insight.

The problem is, you can’t tell for sure when a forest is levelled whether biofuels production hundreds of miles away – or even in a different country – had anything to do with it. It is obviously likely that by raising food prices biofuels strengthen incentives to bring new areas – perhaps sensitive ecosystems like peat-based tropical forests – under the plough… but no-one can prove the relative contribution made by biofuels as opposed to other factors (like increasing demand for meat and weather-related poor harvests).

And figuring out the full life-cycle greenhouse gas implications of biofuels is also very difficult. Ideally you factor in the existing carbon stock of the land (both in soil and natural vegetation) before it is cleared, and subtract that from your purported biofuels carbon savings. Nitrous oxide (a very powerful greenhouse gas) emissions from the additional use of fertiliser should also be considered. Biofuels also need transport and processing, which add to the energy penalty attached to them (although, in fairness, so too do regular fossil fuels).

For the Kenyan case, several NGOs commissioned consultants to study the greenhouse gas implications of the Dakatcha woodlands jatropha project. They conclude [PDF] (though one should bear in mind that consultant reports always seem to support the views of their sponsors) that jatropha oil-derived biofuels produced on cleared Kenyan land would produce emissions 2.5 to 6 times higher than their fossil fuel equivalents. If true (and the methodology looks solid to me) then this is surely an example of misguided climate policy having undeniable stunningly negative impacts in the difficult conditions of the real world. That biofuel derived from deforesting the Dakatcha woodlands could be poured into European cars and counted towards renewable fuels targets is beyond lunacy.

For its part, ActionAid draws some pretty strong conclusions, as the following video shows.

ActionAid is also asking UK residents to write or text the Department for Transport, which is currently consulting on the future of Britain’s domestic biofuels targets.

As does the EU, the UK government is eager to show its commitment to the sustainability of biofuels imports. But the problem is surely that we don’t need them at all, and legislation – both at the UK and European level – must be revised to reflect this. It is now quite clear that the only way to decarbonise road transport is via electricity: with battery-fuelled cars and trucks, recharged using renewable electricity. (The beauty of this is that battery recharging is entirely compatible with intermittent renewable sources of energy like offshore wind.)

The only exception that I can see is aviation (and possibly shipping). There is no conceivable way that electric planes can ply our skies, and hydrogen aircraft are similarly still only science fiction. So with jet aircraft stuck with liquid hydrocarbon fuels, the only likely way we can begin to take fossil carbon out of aviation is to reserve biofuels production for that sector only, and make very sure that the biofuels that are produced deliver major greenhouse gas benefits. British Airways, Virgin and several other aviation operators seem to have realised this, and are already trialling biofuelled jets, as is the US military.

The biofuels story should be a cautionary tale, that even (or perhaps especially) well-motivated policies can have damaging real-world impacts. We have limited land, water and fertiliser available on this planet, and we need to make very sure that our efforts to decarbonise the global economy without sacrificing the lifestyle benefits of the modern world do not swap our climate change problem for something even worse.

8 comments

  1. Lucibee says:

    I broadly agree, but this seems to be a very complicated issue.

    It seems to depend where the fuel plants are grown: Sugarcane cools climate

    And we probably shouldn’t be ruling out other ways to produce biofuels that are likely to be less land-hungry: Single source for fuel and water

    Clearly a long way to go and so little time…

  2. Barry Woods says:

    For anyone to question bio-fuels over the last few years, risked being labelled a ‘climate change deniar’, and put into a sceptics – ‘Hall of Shame’ (Georges at the Guardian, or Georges and Marks at the Campaign Against Climate Change…

    Yet those that have said in the past what Mark describes in the above( for years), were demonised by greens (much like the nuclear debate), nothing about bio-fuels in the above article (which I totally agree with) is new news… so why has this debate only started now.

    Because the environmentalists have not allowed any questions, because of ‘climate change deniar’ finger pointing.

    One of the first comments at Cif about nuclear and George Monbiots lates response was – How Much did they pay you George? – which pretty much sums up the problem having any debate about anything related to climate change

  3. Barry Woods says:

    Actually the bit I do not agree with is – battery fuelled cars…

    If the wind is not blowing at 7:00PM to 7:00 am, how are the car batteres going to be charged.. Remember this is going to be EXTRA demand on our electricity generating capacity, on top of current demand..

    Where is the extra generating capacity realitically goingto come from, for millions of cars that greenpeace want by 2020..

    It will NOT be wind, will it be nuclear?

    Even if the public is persuaded to by electric cars ( I very much doubt this, expense, etc) the cars will be charged up by gas or coal fired power stations and maybe nuclear, so what is the point of them?

    Even IF we had ten times the wind turbines (again not going to happen in ten years)

    As when the wind does not blow ten times virtually zero is still zero, and the sun does not shine at night peak recharge time for domestic cars.

    BBC: Coal takes the strain again.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/paulhudson/2011/01/coal-takes-the-strainagain.shtml

    “On BBC Look North on friday I reported that during the recent intense cold weather, it’s been our traditional coal and gas fired power stations that have been working flat out to keep our homes and businesses warm.

    And for the third winter running, the intense cold has gone hand in hand with periods of little or no wind. This should come as no surprise since prolonged cold is invariably associated with areas of high pressure.”

    Todays power generation by type – Electricity Summary Page

    Peak Wind Generation Forecast
    Monday 2011-04-18 Forecast Today Forecast Tomorrow
    Time of Maximum Wind Generation 17:00 17:00
    Peak (Max) MW 424 248
    Total Metered Capacity (MW) 3226 3226

    Compare Peak generation and forecast for wind, against theoretical metered capacity, pathetically small, but all we hear the coalition announce is metered capacity…

    Then look at the Generation by Fuel Type Graph.
    http://www.bmreports.com/bsp/bsp_home.htm

    Wind is at about 1% of total electricity generation much less than metered capacity.

    20 or 30% actual generation by renewables by 2020, vs theoretical capacity is just green utopian dreams with little regard to engineering and actual reality

  4. Hans Buurma says:

    Fast growing aviation is not yet the major course of warming, but in 40 years from now it will be. The contribution of aviation to fossil CO2-emissions nowadays is some 3%, but the actual contribution of aviation to global warming is at least twice as high. This is due to the emission of NOx and vapour in the stratosphere. Such nonCO2 emissions cannot be compensated by biofuel. At a growth rate of almost 5% annually, global aviation in 2050 needs eight times as much fuel as nowadays. So the GHG-effect of aviation will not be reduced, but will at least quadruple. Meanwhile the rest of the world needs to reduce GHG-emissions to less than 20% of present emissions. Due to its unlimited growth, aviation may become the major cause of a temperature rise of far more than two degrees. Reserving all biofuel production for aviation and not discussing its growth means treating aviation as a holy cow, which is not a very good solution.

  5. Leo Price says:

    Hi Mark

    In New Zealand, the largest producer of biofuel, Fonterra (a producer of 20 million litres annually), processes a waste stream from casein manufacture into bio-ethanol. Not only is this bio-friendly in every sense of the word, but it is ‘recycling at its best.’ Certainly a far cry from the massive carbon emission problem you mention will happen in kenya.

    Another thing I’d like to touch on is the subject of biodiesel fuel: One of my New Zealand-based clients in the marine engineering industry has been trialing bio-diesel fuels for the past 3 years and has found (somewhat surprisingly) that ‘older diesel engines’ are much more receptive to this type of fuel than the new, more hi-tech models. They also found that as long as the biodiesel blend was capped at 5 percent biodiesel, they perform just as well in extremely cold weather as do ordinary diesels.

    It’s just such a traversty of social and economic justice that countries like Kenya (and they’re not the only ones, either) allow themselves to succumb to the greed-driven agendas of multi-nationals on their home soil.

    Leo Price
    Consulting marine engine specialist

  6. Stuart says:

    The use of algae to grow biodiesel on land that is unsuitable for agriculture is the way forward. This way it doesn’t interfere with social issues like growing biofuel on land that could feed the hungry and has all the benefits of a renewable fuel that will displace the vacuum that the lack of cheap petrolium is soon to create.

    But I agree that we should be cautious about rushing into biofuel production that has obvious negative social and environmental effects.

  7. Scott says:

    Here I have to agree with you. Biofuels are ridiculous. The net gain in energy is ridiculously small if it exists at all and the destruction of the environment that conventional Ag creates makes it absolutely stupid.

    Much better uses of the land.

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