The developed world should stop its drive to use biofuels
Biofuels are often seen as a possible short term miracle cure for all sorts of ills, most obvious is climate change, they are zero carbon as burning them is simply putting the CO2 that has already been taken out of the atmosphere by the plants in order to grow. But biofuels also have other uses, from energy security in a world worried about increasing scarcity and terrorism and as a way to subsidise farmers. This makes biofuels politically popular and big business, in the EU for example 10% of all transport fuels must come from biofuels by 2020. But there are many problems with this increasing use that mean that while they may be beneficial to the developed world the developing world often suffers as a result.
You can also add to the debate by leaving a comment at the end of the page.
The creation of biofuels through more agriculture and through plantations inevitably means the reduction and loss of other ecosystems. As land use for biofuels expands other land uses have to be reduced, this is unlikely to be in the form of reducing the size of urban areas or agricultural land so it comes out of natural habitats.
The demand for biofuels has been a major contributory factor in increasing global food prices. One quarter of grain grown in the USA ends up as biofuels. This would be enough to feed 330 million people at average world consumption levels. The EU was similarly profligate in its use of biofuels. The EU expects most of its biofuels to be grown in developing nations such as brazil and Indonesia. A report by ActionAid argues that "To meet the EU 10% target, the total land area directly required to grow industrial biofuels in developing countries could reach 17.5m hectares, over half the size of Italy. Additional land will also be required in developed nations, displacing food and animal feed crops onto land in new areas, often in developing countries."
It is not surprising that this is already having an effect on food prices. The IMF estimates that 20-30% of the spike in food prices during 2007-8 was caused by the production of biofuels. Something that will get much bigger if developed countries continue to increase their demand for biofuels. Of course the developed world can afford increases in the price of foodstuffs, developing nations cant.
Food prices are going up because the size of the global population is going up, especially in the developing world.
Helps fight global warming.
Biofuels should be carbon neutral, or pretty close to it and certainly much better than the fossil fuel options they replace or reduce the need for. Biofuels work by using plant oils or occasionally animal fat as fuel. These can come from crops such as corn, soybean, rapeseed, canola, palm, cottonseed, sunflower and peanut, this is then processed and often blended with normal fuels to create fuels that can then be used in cars, busses etc. This means that because the energy comes from plants that are soaking up CO2 from the atmosphere when we use the fuel we are simply putting what was taken out of the atmosphere back in so we are not overall increasing the amount of CO2.
It is correct that biofuels might technically be CO2 neutral is. However in practice they are not carbon neutral. There are obvious carbon costs in their processing and transportation. However there are also hidden CO2 costs as many biofuels come from plantations in the developing world that often involve ripping up the trees that were there before or displacing people who have to go and move elsewhere and destroy areas of forest (and peat which emits greenhouse gases) to keep on farming.
Next to that, CO2 neutral doesn't fight global warming.
Using crops to create biofuels is a way that governments can use to either subsidise or employ their farmers if there is not enough work already. As Biofuels are more expensive than conventional fuels they typically get subsidies in order to keep the price competitive. This obviously benefits the farmers who often have a large political influence, both in the EU (particularly French farmers) and in the USA.
Higher prices for many crops that is created by biofuels should also benefit farmers in developing countries as they would also get a higher price for their products.
One of the first motivations for using biofuels was that they were cleaner than using fossil fuels. In the USA the clean air act was introduced in 1970 allowed the Environmental Protection Agency to create standards for pollutants such as carbon monoxides and sulphur dioxides. These standards have been increasing ever since. Because biofuels are low in sulphur these other gases that we wish to reduce they have an advantage over conventional fossil fuels because they are clean.
Energy security is a big worry for many nations, from Europe with its own declining oil and gas reserves and a bullying gas superpower Russia supplying much of its energy, to a China worried about its long supply lines for oil from the Middle East that would be vulnerable to attack to the US that is concerned that terrorists may threaten its supplies of oil and gas and that they do not want to be paying too much to the Gulf states – from where some of the money often goes on to find its way into Islamist hands. This makes biofuels a potential saviour. Not only can they be grown at home almost anywhere where there is a large amount of farmland but they also open up the energy markets to other new producers, for example Brazil as sugar cane makes some of the best biofuels. This in turn means less dependence on a few potentially unreliable countries for energy.
Because most biofuels are simply blended with more conventional fuels they are not an answer to the problem of energy security simply a stopgap.
Demand for fuel is increasing.
The demands for fuel is increasing at a time where it is getting increasingly difficult to pump more oil and gas out of the ground as we are nearing 'peak oil'. This means that alternative supplies are needed. There is going to be no overnight transformation to economies based on hydrogen fuel cells and renewable power. This means that there are interim solutions needed. Biofuels can be one of these solutions reducing the demand for oil and making the supplies we have last longer.
Using biofuels simply delays the time where we have to switch over to a zero carbon economy. Obviously this is not helpful, anything that makes a fossil fuel based economy more sustainable is not helpful in the long run. We do not want to enable our governments to delay the necessary actions for even longer.
Bio-fuels could be just use as a starting point for another 0-carbon industry.
Although there are certain negatives with regards to bio-fuels, it is a great place to start in the conservation process. It's still a really great suggestion that could help more, rather than not using anything at all.
What do you think?