Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The great biofuels disaster

There is a good Financial Times article by Kevin Allison and Stephanie Kirchgaessner on the failure of biofuels to live up to what was their promoters claimed for them:
It may have helped keep gasoline prices lower in the world's wealthiest nation, but a growing band of influential critics say it has also contributed to higher food prices in the world's poorest countries. So far, the only sure beneficiaries from the ethanol promise have been the investors clever enough to get into the industry early and the corn farmers who have enjoyed a lucrative new market for their grain.

In short, the story of ethanol is a cautionary tale of the unintended and costly consequences that can arise when the interests of politicians and influential industries collide.
It is often asserted that environmentalists also supported biofuels, though it is hard to find any links that show them doing it. If they did, I suspect it was some years ago. Does anyone know?


Andy said...

To my recollection, most real environmentalists looked on biofuels as potential greenwash, and said that by far the best way for people to make green changes was to consume less fuel.

Like all environmental issues, it's a question of degrees. If some use of fuels is going to be ultimately necessary, biofuels would be a better source than fossil fuels, but the problem comes with people trying to roll them out on a scale that might replace current fuel use, with predictable effects like the ones you mention.

Jim said...

Friends of the Earth supported biofuel targets in 2004. Following warning articles in the Guardian and Southern NGOs complaining of the monoculture impacts, many grassroots environmentalists in the UK started campaigning against biofuel targets in 2006-2007 but our NGOs tended to be slower than that to change their position and meanwhile the damage has been done, politicians are mostly set on biofuel targets.

Biofuels for transport, unless from genuine waste e.g. used cooking oil that would otherwise be thrown away, tend to do far more harm than the petroleum than they replace, whether in large or small quantities. See studies by JRC, Zah et al., Fargione, Searchinger, Plevin, Righelato and Spracklen.

I say "tend" because there are some redeeming aspects to Brazil's growing ethanol for its own use. All current large-scale liquid bioenergy from crops has a bigger ecological footprint than petrol and since Britain is a net importer of food and in ecological deficit, any British shift to liquid bioenergy (except from genuine wastes) is exporting hunger and/or ecological destruction, or the wrong use for abolished set-asides. Even now, most major NGOs and Jonathon Porritt have refused to acknowledge this simple logic.