More fuel for the fire in the debate over biofuels

How best to balance the sustainable, certified and small-scale cultivation of biofuels with the need to counteract mounting world hunger & cut carbon emissions?

Our guest writer is David Nash, international climate change researcher at the Institute for Public Policy Research (ippr)

Controversies surrounding renewable biofuels have emerged afresh in recent weeks. First came a leaked EU document proposing changes to European Commission sustainability standards which would enable palm oil plantations to be categorised as natural forests.

This was swiftly followed by rumours of an internal memo in which a senior EU official allegedly concedes that taking account of the total carbon footprint of biofuels would “kill” the EU’s budding green fuel industry.

The EU has a keen interest in the ongoing debate on green energy fuels, not least because it subsidises production to the tune of £3 billion each year in order to deliver on a legal pledge to source 10% of transport fuels from renewable sources by 2020.

In the UK, liquid biofuels accounted for 2.7% of transport fuel supplied between April 2008 and January 2009.

However, the EU legislation has been met with stern criticism from environmental campaigners and development groups, who argue that green fuels force up food prices and, contrary to popular belief, do not deliver greater greenhouse gas emissions savings than their conventional fossil-based counterparts.

The environmental community is particularly concerned by carbon emissions caused by “indirect land-use change” – where farmers are forced to clear carbon-rich rainforests and drain peatlands for agricultural harvest because existing land has been swallowed up for energy crop cultivation.

They also point out that fertilisers used to grow industrial energy crops are rich in nitrous oxide, a harmful pollutant with a life span of approximately 100-120 years, which threatens soil and plant ecosystems.

These new revelations coincide with the release of a new report by ActionAid which argues that large-scale biofuel production has led to land grab and the displacement of local communities in developing countries.

The NGO also says that if all global biofuel targets – including the EU’s 2020 pledge – are met, the resulting depletion of maize, wheat and soya bean stocks would raise global food prices by 76%. In Africa, where 80% of household income is spent on foodstuffs, a small hike in food prices could have devastating humanitarian consequences.

The tendency then to condemn the expansion of biofuels and tar industrial producers with the same ugly brush as the major oil conglomerates is unsurprising and in many ways justified. Yet for all the many flaws of liquid fuels, the wider debate over bio-energy warrants a more nuanced approach.

First, there are alternatives to the industrial monoculture of liquid biofuels. In particular, there needs to be greater exploration of, and innovation in, advanced algae and waste-based biofuels, which do promise clear carbon emission savings but are currently underdeveloped and commercially unviable.

The latter, which are due to be trialled by British Airways to fuel Boeing jets at London City Airport, could significantly cut the amount of UK household and industrial waste that goes to landfill.

Other nascent innovations such as the compact FuelPod 2 which blends used cooking oil with methanol to produce up to 50 litres of bio-diesel every day are already on the market.

Yet if, as the Department for Transport estimates, up to one third of UK transport fuel is to come from home-grown green fuels in the future – and if we’re not going to rely wholly on conventional energy crops – then these types of devices and other new technologies will need to become a whole lot cheaper.

Second, more needs to be done to promote sustainable forestry and land management in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia. Instead of proposing highly suspect changes to sustainability standards in order to stand a better chance of achieving its 2020 target, the EU and others should be supporting developing countries to establish better local monitoring and accounting systems for biofuel generation.

Regulation is also needed to ensure that multinational green fuel firms investing in developing countries conform to minimum standards of consultation with local communities and build domestic profitability and environmental impact considerations into their operational plans.

Although biofuel expansion has been blamed for the 2008 spike in food prices, culling bio-ethanol production in Brazil and the US – which together accounted for 89% of production in 2008 – could potentially lead to greater worldwide demand for oil.

Escalating oil prices would likely hike up food prices, while the queues at the pumps could be as long as in 2000.

Can we say goodbye to biofuels once and for all? Probably not.

Policymakers are still some way off catalysing the mass ramp-out of commercial hybrid and electric vehicles and if we are not to rely solely on fossil fuels, bio-energy is perhaps the best alternative for powering transport in the short term.

At the launch of their report, fittingly hosted by the British Transport museum, Action Aid’s Tim Rice rightly called for measures to curb demand for transport fuels, including investing in better public transport and incentivising walking and cycling.

However, discouraging car travel remains an uphill battle so long as Jeremy Clarkson commands the ears of a large proportion of the British electorate.

In the meantime, we need to work out how best to balance the sustainable, certified and small-scale cultivation of biofuels with the paramount need to counteract mounting world hunger and cut carbon emissions.

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