Are biofuels a better alternative to fossil fuels? Should their use be encouraged by government regulations and subsidy?
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Biofuels are the best way of reducing our emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases res...
Biofuels are the best way of reducing our emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases responsible for global climate change. As with fossil fuels, burning biodiesel or ethanol to drive an engine or generate electricity releases carbon into the atmosphere. Unlike with fossil fuels, however, growing the plants from which biofuels are made takes carbon from the air, so overall the process is carbon neutral. This means policies to increase the use of biofuels could greatly reduce overall levels of carbon emissions, and so be a major part of tackling global climate change. They can also help improve local air quality as mixing ethanol with fossil fuels helps meet clean air standards.
In theory biofuels appear to reduce overall carbon emissions, but in practice they are much less environmentally friendly than their boosters claim. Although growing plants absorb carbon from the atmosphere, the whole process of turning a seed into fuel is very energy-intensive. Modern farming uses large inputs of fertilisers, as well as fuel for running machinery and transport. Turning a crop into biofuel that can be used in an engine also requires a lot of energy. All of this produces additional carbon emissions and means that biofuels are often not much better for the atmosphere than the fossil fuels they seek to replace, especially as more fuel needs to be burned to travel the same distance (because they are less efficient than fossil fuels). Some biofuel crops (e.g. sugar cane) do produce much more energy than is needed to grow them, but making ethanol from maize may actually take 30% more energy than it generates as a fuel – and it is maize-based ethanol that US policy is backing so heavily.
Unlike oil, biofuels are renewable and sustainable. At present mankind is using up fossil fuel reso...
Unlike oil, biofuels are renewable and sustainable. At present mankind is using up fossil fuel resources at an alarming rate, and often damaging the environment in order to extract them. If we go on relying on fossil fuels they will one day run out, and not only will our descendants no longer have viable energy reserves, but they will also have to cope with the ecological damage coal, oil and gas extraction have inflicted on the earth. Making fuel from crops provides a perfect, sustainable solution.
The increased production of biofuels presents a growing environmental threat. If biofuels are to meet a significant part of our energy needs, vast areas will need to be devoted to crops such as oilseed rape, maize, sugar cane and oil palms. These monocultures are very bad for biodiversity, denying wildlife and native plants places to live. And as the crops will not be grown for human consumption, it is likely that there will be greater use of pesticides, herbicides and genetically-modified crops – all very bad for the natural environment. The greatest environmental threat will be in the developing world, where profits from biofuel production provide strong incentives to cut down the remaining rainforest areas to create sugar cane or palm oil plantations – a process which can already be seen in Brazil and Indonesia.
The reliance of America and its western allies on conventional fossil fuels, chiefly oil, is a major...
The reliance of America and its western allies on conventional fossil fuels, chiefly oil, is a major security issue. Much of the world’s oil and gas is produced by unstable, unfriendly or undemocratic regimes, none of whom can be counted on as reliable long-term partners when considering our future energy security. The past actions of OPEC and the recent willingness of Russia to use its supplies of natural gas to threaten European states both point to a need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Some commentators have also argued that the money we pay to conservative Islamic states for oil often ends up funding terrorism and propping up potential enemies. Increasing the use of biofuels can therefore contribute to our security by ensuring that more of our energy needs are met from within our own country, reducing our dependence on foreign suppliers.
Attempting complete independence from other countries is impossible and undesirable – the world is now too interconnected and interdependent. Our prosperity rests upon being able to trade goods and services widely with people in other countries and attempts to retreat from this free market will impoverish us as well as them. Nor are the USA and its western allies scarily dependent upon just one source for their fossil fuel needs – new countries like Angola, Nigeria and Canada have all become major energy suppliers in the past decade. In any case, America’s demand for energy is so great that there is no possibility of achieving energy independence through biofuels. Trying to produce enough ethanol domestically would mean replacing food farming with biofuel crops – meaning the USA could no longer feed itself, and so would become heavily dependent upon food imports instead.
There is plenty of scope to produce much greater quantities of biofuels without squeezing food produ...
There is plenty of scope to produce much greater quantities of biofuels without squeezing food production. Many developed countries have been overproducing crops such as wheat in past decades, leading to programmes such as the EU’s set-aside scheme whereby farmers are paid not to grow crops on some of their land. Agricultural productivity continues to rise, especially in the developing world where new techniques and strains of seed, including types genetically-modified to suit harsh conditions will have a major impact.
Using agricultural land to grow biofuel crops means that less crops are grown for human consumption (or for feeding livestock). This pushes up the price of food for everyone but especially affects the poor, both in developed countries and in the developing world. Already Mexicans have found the price of their staple tortillas has risen sharply, as American maize is diverted to subsidised biofuel plants in the Mid West. The prices of sugar and palm oil have also experienced steep increases recently. If biofuel production is promoted even more this trend will continue, contributing to increased poverty, malnutrition and suffering. Given that our energy needs can be met by fossil fuels, it seems immoral to divert our agricultural resources unnecessarily.
The growth of biofuels will be good for farmers, both in the west and in the developed world. In re...
The growth of biofuels will be good for farmers, both in the west and in the developed world. In recent decades farmers in the developed world have produced more food than the market required, resulting in large surpluses and very low prices. A great many farmers have been driven out of business as a result, and few young people wish to try to make a living from the land. Meanwhile, surplus grain from America and the EU has often been dumped on markets in the developing world, harming local farmers who are unable to compete. Both sorts of farmers stand to benefit from increased demand for biofuels, as farm incomes improve and market-distorting surpluses disappear. Taxpayers may also benefit as there will be less need to subsidise more prosperous farmers.
Biofuels will not guarantee a glorious future for farmers, either in the west or in the developing world. Oil prices have swung very widely over the past twenty years, and may well collapse again in the future, especially as investment in new production has been encouraged by recent high prices and so more oil is likely to come on stream in the next few years. Changes in the international situation could also reduce the “security premium” paid for fossil fuels since 2001. If oil prices sink back even to the (historically high) level of $50 a barrel, then biofuels will look much less economic and farmers will go bust as a result. \
And agriculture in the developing world is held back by the web of tariffs and subsidies the rich world uses to support its own farmers, not by market failure. Truly freeing the market in commodities such as cotton, grain and sugar would do much more to bring prosperity to many desperately poor countries than any promise biofuels may seem to offer. After all, if the USA or the EU really wanted to promote biofuels they would reduce their high tariffs on imports of cheap Brazilian sugar-cane ethanol rather than pay their own farmers to produce biofuel from much less efficient maize or rapeseed.\
Biofuels are now an economic alternative to fossil fuels and with advances in technology and the sca...
Biofuels are now an economic alternative to fossil fuels and with advances in technology and the scaling up of production, their price per gallon (or litre) will continue to fall. Oil looks likely to maintain its current high prices well into the future, due to the exhaustion of many existing fields, strong demand from developing economies such as India and China, and security concerns which are unlikely to go away. Given these long-term trends, without investment in biofuel technology we actually risk our economies being crippled by sky-high fuel costs, for example if oil prices head up over $100 a barrel. Some subsidies to this investment seem highly justified, especially as they can replace existing agricultural support payments, rather than being additional money.\
Biofuels are also a sensible bridge to a greener future, allowing us to develop a more sustainable future without unbearable economic or social cost. Unlike alternatives such as hydrogen fuel cells, biofuels do not need a completely different infrastructure to be widely adopted. \
Biofuels are only competitive with fossil fuels because they are heavily subsidised, especially in the USA where the farming lobby has promoted ethanol out of pure self-interest. Subsidies on biofuels at federal or state level cost American taxpayers something like $5.5 to $7.5 billion each year. More costs will come if auto makers are forced by governments to build engines which can run on higher proportions of biofuel, as these will be passed on to the consumer in the form of more expensive vehicles. Overall, all this subsidy and investment will be useless if the price of oil returns to its long-term average over the past 30 years, which will make biofuels uneconomic and ruin many farmers and industrial investors.
Biofuels already have a great deal to offer today, but prospects for the future are even more exciti...
Biofuels already have a great deal to offer today, but prospects for the future are even more exciting and deserve our support. New crops like Jatropha promise to produce much more energy from a given amount of land. They also flourish without annual replanting or chemical inputs on marginal land. In the longer term, bio-engineers are working on producing “cellulosic” biofuels – in which the stems and leaves of plants or trees are used to produce ethanol, not just the fruits or seeds. Cellulosic biofuels would allow much more fuel to be produced from a given amount of land, and could also be made from the waste products of food or timber production, such as straw and woodchips.
Biofuel technology may improve, but this is not guaranteed and it may require more use of genetic engineering than the public is willing to tolerate. Even if the industry does live up to its boosters’ optimistic promises, biofuels are still not the right focus of our energy policy. They may be a little better than fossil fuels, but they will never realistically replace them entirely, and their promotion takes attention away from more worthwhile approaches. Not only do biofuels let the auto industry continue with business much as usual, they also provide a cover for the fossil-fuel industry by prolonging the life of the oil economy. A much better approach would be to concentrate on reducing our use of energy more radically. This could be achieved through conservation measures, improved fuel efficiency standards, new types of engine, replacing much private vehicle use with public transport provision, better town planning, etc.
What do you think?