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Rethinking biofuels?

The BBC reports that the Environmental Audit Committee has called on the EU to abandon its biofuel targets “because they are damaging to the environment”.

It has become fairly clear that current ideas about biofuel production have major problems. Using crop plants like corn creates a competition between food production and fuel production. Modern methods of crop production use so much fossil fuel (much of it in the form of fertilisers) that the benefits of biofuels in terms of reduced carbon emissions tend to be small. In addition, modern agriculture tends to lead to increased soil carbon losses. If biofuel production competes with food production, there is pressure to bring more land into cultivation. Not only does that lead to a loss of natural and semi-natural habitat, it also boosts soil carbon losses.

The report also talks about investing in more “sustainable” biofuels like waste vegetable oil. I have always been curious about that one – is it really something that’s available on the sort of scale that would make a difference? Running a vehicle on biodiesel collected from fast food restaurants seems like a bit of an affectation – a great idea, sure, but how many people could really do that before you end up with a problem of supply? Does the world really use that much cooking oil? It’s entirely possible – which is in itself a pretty disturbing idea. How much would we reduce our carbon footprint simply by eating less deep-fried foods?

There are also some things in the report (or rather, the report on the report) that I hadn’t thought about. They recommend that biofuels be used for heating and cooling rather than transport. I’m not sure what the difference is, but I’m guessing that it’s related to the fact that fuels for transport need to be energy-rich: few people have wood-powered cars, but using wood for a heating fuel is common. It takes a lot of energy (and ingenuity) to convert biomass to fuel you can run a car on. It’s far easier to use it to heat your home.

Finally, there are concerns about backlash:

The Royal Society shares the committee’s concern that the EU should ensure that the most efficient biofuels are encouraged – but fears a backlash against biofuels which might deter investment in better biofuel technologies.

The way that they are doing things in the US is almost certain to create backlash against biofuels, since it’s being approached as another kickback to industry.

There are lots of ways to cut down on carbon emissions. Biofuels have a lot of potential, but only if done right. Still, there are many other ways – like more use of rail to transport things, like higher fuel efficiency standards, like doing more to improve efficiency in homes and industry. Biofuels have the “easy fix” appeal – they allow us to continue living our lives as normal, with the belief that we can do so and still solve the problem. There are lots of easy solutions – like walking or riding the bus. But there are also lots of easy “solutions” that don’t improve things in any way.

At the heart of solving the problem is a reduction in consumption. If Americans could cut their meat consumption in half, there would be a lot less demand for corn, and there would be a lot less pollution from feed lots. But telling Americans to spend less money is political suicide.


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