Published in Tribune, 6 June 2008
IN FEBRUARY, for the first time, a Virgin Atlantic airliner flew from London to Amsterdam with a fuel tank full of coconut oil. This was, we were told, part of the biofuel revolution that could slash pollution without us having to cut back on our energy addiction. In reality, while they do reduce greenhouse gas emissions, biofuels have turned out to have such major pitfalls that environmental groups are starting to ask whether they have any place at all in our energy mix.
Of course, biofuels are not just about the environment. The reasons for their use are just as much about international realpolitik, a good dose of old fashioned free market capitalism and, oddly, local politics in the American state of Iowa. None of this is necessarily to say that biofuels are always a bad idea, nor that they don’t help to fight climate change. But it does raise questions about Britain’s policy to broaden their use. What justifies biofuels in Brazil does not necessarily justify them in this country.
Biofuels come in a number of varieties, all of them derived from living organisms, most of them crops. Because they absorb as much carbon dioxide when they grow as they release when burned, biofuels can help reduce carbon emissions relative to fossil fuels. However, they are not completely carbon neutral because of the energy they take to process.
The most popular biofuels currently in use are vegetable oils which can be processed into biodiesel, and alcohol fermented from sugar, used as a petrol additive. There is also smaller-scale (and more ecologically straightforward) use of agricultural waste and recycling of gas from landfill sites, as well as some promising experimental techniques for using non-food crops like wood, seaweed or cotton – but the scale of these is currently minimal.
According to the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation, established earlier this year, Britain aims to blend 5 per cent of these biofuels with the petrol and diesel sold in filling stations. This policy is explicitly presented as an attempt to cut greenhouse gas emissions.
Whether or not the smallish resulting drop in carbon dioxide emissions justifies the costs is a complex question. It certainly isn’t an open and shut case of environmental conservation. Protecting the environment is about more than cutting carbon emissions, it’s also about issues like saving rainforests from destruction. Palm oil plantations, a major source of biodiesel, are a leading cause of deforestation in Indonesia. Moreover, using food crops such as maize, sugar and oilseed rape to make biofuels has pushed up the price of food, causing misery in the developing world.
Internationally, the case for biofuels has mostly not been an environmental one. Two of the biggest proponents of biofuel production are the Brazilian government and the current administration in the United States – neither of which is a byword for conservation.
Brazil is the biggest global producer of alcohol from sugarcane, and has been since the oil shock of the 1970s. Far from being an environmental measure, Brazil’s enthusiasm for running its cars on alcohol dates back to the same period when it started chopping down the rainforest. The Brazilian biofuel industry is actually a fairly straightforward case of the law of the market. Sugarcane, which grows well in the Brazilian climate, has shown itself to be an economically viable fuel, particularly when the global oil price has been high.
As for the US, George Bush’s denial of climate change immediately rules out the environment as a motivation. In fact, his government has two main reasons for promoting biofuels, one obvious, and one less so. Officially, the Bush administration’s support for biofuels is, like Brazil’s, aimed at reducing reliance on foreign oil, with all the political and economic ties to hostile regimes that brings. (This is also the stated reason for wanting to drill for oil in the arctic wilderness of northern Alaska.) This set of economic and political policies tends to get referred to as energy security, a name that nicely obfuscates both the boring details of energy economics and the outrageous vandalism of drilling for oil in nature reserves in one hard-to-oppose package.
The US government’s less obvious reason for supporting biofuel production is actually nothing to do with energy independence. The heart of the US biofuels industry is in producing alcohol from maize, largely grown in Iowa. Maize is a shockingly bad biofuel because the energy needed to grow the crop and turn it into alcohol is almost as large as the amount of fuel produced. (Brazilian sugarcane alcohol is about seven to 10 times more efficient to produce.) The industry is kept alive by subsidy alone. In fact, the whole thing would be utterly incomprehensible were it not for the disproportionate influence Iowa has in US politics, thanks to its must-win position at the start of the presidential primary season. Subsidies to corn farmers are an easy sweetener for candidates to throw to potential voters, but they don’t make good economic or environmental sense.
These reasons don’t apply to Britain. Our energy supply is already relatively secure thanks to North Sea oil and we don’t have a native biofuel industry to promote either, so their use does not help secure energy independence – in fact, it does the opposite. Nor is there a strong domestic political justification for their use like there is in America.
The reasons for using biofuels in Britain were always weaker than they were across the Atlantic, because they were based on the environmental benefits alone. As the ecological and social arguments in favour of using biofuels disappear, it’s hard to see any remaining reasons for the Government to push for their use.
The problem isn’t one of bad science – biofuels work perfectly well at cutting carbon dioxide emissions. The trouble is that they are quickly becoming bad politics and bad economics. They are hurting the poorest people in the world and destroying fragile ecosystems.
That’s hardly a good record for a policy aimed at saving the world from an environmental catastrophe.