Biofuels Are Not the Answer

By Tim Joslin
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The threat of global warming has led governments around the world to encourage the use of biofuel, in particular in the transport sector, in the hope of displacing fossil fuel. The UK, following an EU Biofuels Directive, is introducing a Road Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO), requiring fuel providers to ensure that 5% of their total road transport fuel sales “is made up of fuels from renewable sources” by 2010.

It is already well-known, through the efforts of, in particular, George Monbiot, that a large-scale diversion of agricultural land to the production of biofuel will set up competition between food and fuel, between people and cars. Vast tracts of rainforest are already being cleared to create more land on which to grow biofuel crops, such as oil palm. Governments may argue that they can manage these problems, whilst continuing to promote biofuel use. This is doubtful.

But there are even more fundamental arguments against biofuels. This paper shows that the use of biofuel to supplement fossil fuel for vehicle transport is not only disastrous in practice, it is also flawed even on its own terms, in two distinct ways:

  1. plant-growth on land is one of the main ways in which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere. Land is therefore a resource in the fight against global-warming. Even under optimistic assumptions, growing biofuel crops will not reduce atmospheric levels of CO2 over any timescale of up to more than a century, compared to preventing deforestation or even simply leaving already cleared land alone and allowing natural plant growth to capture carbon.
  2. we know that within a few decades we must dramatically reduce our reliance on fossil-fuels, especially in the transport sector, where capturing and sequestering carbon emissions would be very expensive. In terms of achieving this objective, the use of biofuel is counter-productive. Instead of encouraging investment in energy supplies that are renewable for the long-term, measures such as the RTFO incentivise businesses and individuals to make further investments in technology for burning fossil fuels. Government should instead encourage a technological path from hybrid cars, through plug-in hybrids, to electric cars. Instead of continuing to burn carbon, our future transport energy needs can be met by the generation of electricity using true renewable and/or nuclear technologies.

Biofuels are not the answer.

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4 thoughts on “Biofuels Are Not the Answer”

  1. There are biofuels that do not cause the problems you are assuming. In your point 1 above, you are assuming that every place on earth, there is a luxuraint forest. Unfortunaetly there are deserts. If we grow algae in a desert, we will capture much more CO2 than the desert would have. Please recognize that there are some biofuels that do not have the problems you are concerned about.

  2. Liberty1: I don’t make the assumption that there is a potential for luxuriant forest everywhere on Earth. I note in the paper, for example, that agricultural land reverting to natural grassland also takes up carbon faster (mostly into the soil) than it might supposedly be “saved” by growing biofuel crops on the same land, for many decades.

    Growing algae in the desert to produce fuel is not being done commercially yet. The possibility of future biofuels with less environmental impact doesn’t justify promoting destructive biofuel crops now.

    In the paper I note that, if you’re going to do large-scale engineering in the desert, growing algae is always going to be much less efficient than using solar power technologies to produce electricity. I don’t see the point, unless we have too little imagination to see that we don’t necessarily have to run transport on carbon-based fuels.

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