Biofuels used to be seen as the answer to all our energy-related problems. But critics say that the rush to biofuels is pushing up the price of cereals
Biofuels used to be seen as the answer to all our energ y-related problems.
Then, abruptly, they fell out of fashion. So where does that leave us? Sophie Morrisintroduces a unique supplement on a subject that could prove crucial to all our futures
They were the golden ticket to a low carbon future: a squeaky clean, green fuel upon which we could ride the wave of dwindling oil supplies and devastating climate change without putting the brakes on expanding international transport links. But the promise of biofuels has tarnished of late, their progress mired by accusations that they are simply not up to the job in hand, as well as by mounting evidence of the terrible environmental and humanitarian side-effects provoked by the rush to carpet the world in fuel crops.
In October 2007, the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, called biofuels “a crime against humanity”. “The effect of transforming hundreds and hundreds of thousands of tonnes of maize,” explained Ziegler, “of wheat, beans, palm oil, into agricultural fuel is absolutely catastrophic for hungry people.” His comments followed a warning from the environmentalist Al Gore, who told biofuel producers: “The danger with biofuels is that extremely valuable forests will be destroyed unnecessarily.” For Gore to take such a view, alongside other usual suspects like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, is unsurprising. This year, however, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund added their voices. In July, a UK government report seriously questioned the sustainability of the current biofuels drive, identifying their contribution to rising food prices, deforestation and potential increases in the greenhouse gas emissions they were supposed to reduce. For the first time, US presidential hopeful Barack Obama is showing signs of reneging on his support for the massive corn subsidies American farmers can claim for growing the crop, after his green adviser warned of the potential dangers of corn-based bioethanol.
There are existing or planned biofuel plants in Europe, the US, Brazil, China, India, Israel and South East Asia. Africa is a burgeoning market, and the great hope of development experts and biofuels pioneers alike. Billions have been invested across South Africa, Mozambique, Angola and Zambia.
And yet, at the moment, it is still unclear whether so-called “first generation” biofuels are worth even the effort it takes to make them. Will we be able to develop second generation biofuels in time to plug the growing energy gap? Are biofuels the answer, or just the emperor’s new clothes? The prefix “bio” transforms expensive, polluting fossil fuels into an apparently natural, environmentally-friendly and renewable energy source to power the world’s belching glut of trains, planes and automobiles.
The technology is ontrack for them to provide new heat and electricity sources, too.
Biofuels are made from biomass: essentially anything derived from a plant or animal, rather than ancient matter drilled from below the earth’s surface. The most popular and common are bioethanol, which is distilled from sugar cane or corn, and biodiesel, usually created from soya beans or rape seed. When burnt in a car’s engine, biofuels emit ozonedepleting greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the same way as traditional petroleum-based fuels; but because the plants have absorbed carbon during the growing period, they are perceived to be in “energy balance”. That is, they have not added to the carbon in the atmosphere.
Biofuelwatch, the industry’s chief opponent, claim that they actually add to the volume of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. “Using land to grow corn for ethanol in the United States, for example,” explains Biofuelwatch’s Almuth Ernsting, “doesn’t emit extra greenhouse gases in the United States. But the knock-on effect is the price of soya going up, and soya farmers in Brazil expanding into the Amazon. The emissions from that hugely outweigh any savings.” If they seem like a truly alchemic development - perhaps the greatest discovery since oil itself - the truth is that biofuels are as old as fire, and humans have always used biomass for heating and cooking. Its potential for use in combustion engines was harnessed by Rudolf Diesel in the late 1800s, who ran his first diesel engines on peanut oil. In 1925 Henry Ford told the New York Times that ethanol was the “fuel of the future”. “There’s enough alcohol in one year’s yield of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for 100 years,” claimed Ford. He failed to foresee a planet groaning under the weight of six billion people and their growing fleet of cars and planes.
Drilling technology soon doused the automotive industry in a swell of cheap oil, and from then on, except in times of scarcity and high demand (wartime and the 1970s OPEC oil crises), biofuel production was largely put to one side.
Many factors led to renewed interest in powering up on plant matter: the threat of “peak oil” (the point at which oil production goes into terminal decline, which some experts believe we have already passed and few believe can be very far away); the contribution of the transport sector to climate change-causing carbon emissions; and, for the US at least, a desire to free itself from its dependence on oil-rich Arab countries.
Eighteen per cent of the world’s annual carbon emissions are attributed to the transport industry, the industry that has shown the greatest interest in biofuels..
At $130 a barrel, the cost of oil has doubled in a year, and increased tenfold over the past decade. The aviation industry (which, it is predicted, will be responsible for 15 per cent of total emissions by 2015) leapt at the promise of a renewable fuel source.
In 2006, Virgin boss Richard Branson pledged all the profits from his air and rail business towards developing biofuels, a sum of £1.6bn for his Virgin Fuels business. He has also invested heavily in US bioethanol venture Cilion, trial run his trains on a biodiesel blend and believes future planes will fly on green fuel. Shell is the world’s largest biofuels distributor and sold over five billion litres in 2007, mainly in the US, Brazil and Europe.
There have been rum- blings of dissent about the ecological credentials of biofuels, and about their ability to replace fossil fuels adequately, for years, but now the rumbling has become a roar - at the very moment when, ironically, state support for them has reached a new high. The EU is debating what proportion of biofuels should be blended into regular petrol. In April, it became law for 2.5 per cent of all petrol bought at UK pumps to be biofuel. The government’s Gallagher Review, published just three months later, warned of the dangers of pursuing first generation biofuels. In July, transport minister Ruth Kelly announced in parliament that a “more cautious” approach would be taken to their introduction, and (the same day) MEPs decided against a target of deriving 10 per cent of all the EU’s transport fuel from biofuels by 2020, calling instead for four per cent by 2015, at which time the situation should be reviewed.
Suddenly it seems as though, far from being the silver bullet we hoped, biofuels may be just a shortsighted, stop-gap solution.
The downside to biofuels is fourfold. Their environmental record is unclear; the social impact of finding land to plant them on has made millions homeless; redirection of land used for growing food to fuel crops has contributed to the current global food crisis (though the extent of this blame is disputed); and the search for new land on which to grow biofuels has led to the razing of virgin forest (far more effective carbon sinks than fertilised monocultures), which in turn threatens biodiversity and endangered species, such as the orang-utan in Indonesia and Borneo.
For environmentalists the case is closed. “Biofuels are not an efficient way to tackle emissions. They might even increase them,” says Kenneth Richter, biofuels campaigner at Friends of the Earth. The counter-argument is that, if we don’t explore alternatives to oil, however flawed, we will never find a viable solution to combined crises of climate change and energy scarcity.
The truth is that the subject of biofuels is a complex one. An ear of corn cannot simply be picked and popped into an engine. It needs to be fertilised, harvested with farm machinery, distilled and transported to the pump first - a carbon-intensive process. This means that all the greenhouse gases emitted during processing must be discounted from the carbon absorbed by the plants while they grow. Corn ethanol produces 1.3 times the energy expended to produce it and emits 22 per cent less greenhouse gas than petrol. Good, but not world-changing, results.
Biodiesel, which costs almost three times as much as ethanol to produce, performs better, producing 2.5 times the energy required to process it. It emits 68 per cent less greenhouse gas than regular diesel. The drawback here is that the more it catches on (and it is possible to make biodiesel in the UK from rapeseed oil), the more the resulting market stimulates soya and palm oil plantations in unregulated markets. (Biodiesel also emits enormous amounts of nitrous oxide.) Sugar cane ethanol, of which Brazil is a pioneer, tops both of these. A sugar cane plantation yields twice as much as corn and its stalks are 20 per cent sugar. It provides eight times more energy than is needed to produce it and emits 56 per cent less carbon than petrol.
Brazil is the poster child for biofuels. It decided to wean itself off oil - it was importing 75 per cent - back in the 1970s when consecutive OPEC oil crises reverberated around the globe. The military government financed new ethanol plants and subsidised cane growers. Cars were designed to run on straight ethanol. It is the blueprint for President George Bush, who hopes the US will cement its own biofuel economy.
The worry that biofuel production may actually release more carbon into the atmosphere than is absorbed in the growing process, even though these figures from the US Department of Energy suggest fractionally otherwise, comes from the inconclusive and inconsistent methods of measuring emissions from “well to wheel”. At present organisations such as the UK Renewable Fuels Agency (RFA), a fledgling government body set up to inject some clarity into the quagmire of biofuels, measure the carbon absorbed and emitted during production with a technique called “life cycle analysis”.
“At the moment we have quite a sophisticated life cycle analysis,” explains Chris Malins of the RFA. “It looks at the emissions associated with transporting feedstock and processed fuels. It looks at the production processes of the fuels and the amount of fertiliser used on the farmland where the fuels are grown.
What it doesn’t consider is the possibility that you’ve displaced previously existing food production somewhere else, and that might have additional emissions associated with it.
“The Gallagher Review suggests that biofuels should only be grown on idle and marginal lands, but the mechanisms to make sure that happens don’t exist yet.” The environmentalist George Monbiot, who has been warning of the dangers of biofuels since 2004, says that growing enough biofuels to serve UK transportation needs alone would require planting four times the arable land we have. That would be to run transport on 100 per cent biofuel. However, Clare Wenner, head of renewable transport at the Renewable Energy Association says it would be very easy to meet the current 2.5 per cent target and more with biofuels grown in the UK. At present the UK produces 150,000 tons, mainly from cooking oil and animal fat. One million tons are needed to blend 2.5 per cent biofuel into petrol, and Wenner says that would be met by using set-aside land and holding on to the four or five million tons of surplus wheat which is exported each year.
But there are also other consequences of the biofuel rush, notably the displacement of millions of people to make way for vast fuel crop plantations. Palm oil, widely used in plastics and cosmetics, is increasingly being used in biofuels from Malaysia, Indonesia and Colombia. Victoria Tauli- Corpuz, the author of a recent UN report on the effect of biofuel expansion on tribal peoples, warned that it threatens to deprive 60 million indigenous people of their land and livelihoods.
Stephen Corry, the director of Survival International, says: “The companies feverishly promoting this industry have been perfectly willing to push aside tribal people in their hunger for land.” It was rising food prices that really put biofuels under the spotlight. In early July a World Bank report was leaked that suggested that 75 per cent of the current rise in food prices - the cost of the foods analysed in the unpublished report has risen by 140 per cent since 2002, pushing 100 million people below the poverty line - is attributable to biofuels. The report was written in April, before the US claimed (during June’s UN food summit in Rome) that just three per cent of the price hike was down to biofuels. It is hard for non-experts to choose between such conflicting claims, but the raw data does seem to point in one direction: between 2002 and 2007 a number of wheat-exporting countries, including Russia, Canada, Argentina and EU member states, turned over land with a production potential of 80 million tons to biofuels. Over those same five years, wheat stocks fell by 56 million tons. However, other events, like drought, also affect this figure.
A further fallout of this change in land use is that traditional farming practices such as cattle ranching are themselves displaced and seek new space to operate, perhaps in conservation areas in the Amazon jungle or Indonesian rainforest.
Last May, Greenpeace and other NGOs placed f orang-utan with a petrol pump held to its head. The text read: “Tell the government to choose the right biofuel, or the orang-utan gets it.” It called for a moratorium on suspiciously-sourced biofuels, such as those distilled from palm oil. It’s increasingly hard to dispute that there are serious drawbacks to at least some biofuels. Yet, it is a big step from that position to writing off the whole idea. “The two most serious requirements this planet has are food and energy. We’ve got to be a lot smarter about how we deliver,” says Wenner. “If you are going to deliver high sustainability standards, the best place to deliver them from is your doorstep. My big fear is that reining in the targets will choke off the opportunity to invest in good biofuels, but will not control the bad. You’ll lose all control, and that would be highly regrettable.” The Roundtable on Sustainable Biofuels (RSB) established itself last year to try and flush out some of biofuel’s gremlins. Second generation biofuels, in which all of the plant, including the roots and any woody stems, is turned into biofuel, have become a byword for sustainable biofuels because they make use of waste products, though they do not take all of the humanitarian sideeffects into account. “People use the term second generation biofuel for any biofuel that’s made from a non-food crop, so they include jatropha,” explains Friends of the Earth’s Ken- ‘OIL CONTINUES TO DWINDLE. THE CLIMATE CONTINUES TO WARM. BIOFUELSMAY NOT BE THE ANSWER, BUT THE ISSUE WILL NOT GO AWAY’neth Richter. “The only difference between jatropha and maize is that you can’t actually eat the jatropha fruit. You’re still only using the fruit to make the oil, and it’s still competing for land.” Shell is investing in second generation biofuels which make use of straw and wood. It claims they will offer a 90 per cent reduction in well-to-wheel CO2 emissions, but they will not be available for five to 10 years, during which time the demand for first generation sustainable and unsustainable biofuels will grow, owing to government mandates. Environmentalists are calling for production to be suspended for that five- to 10-year period. At the moment, they say, second generation biofuels use up more energy in production than you can get out of them. They also require huge new tree plantations which, like palm oil, will need land. Lignin makes trees hard and therefore difficult to convert into fuel. To get around this, scientists are currently experimenting with varieties of GM trees without lignin. “What that means is that you end up with trees that are basically lying down,” says Richter. A third hope for the future of biofuels lies in algae. Like other crops, the slimy green pond scum will not solve our energy crisis without damaging the environment, but it should be far less damaging than any other crop. Algae can grow in any type of water, so waste and sea water could be used for production. It requires no toxic fertilisers and could be harvested every single day. Around a dozen start-ups are currently vying to transform algae into fuel. The idea of skimming cups of viscous mulch off the top of a pond and using it to travel to work on is up there with filling your tank up with chip fat, or a combination of wine and cheese, which Prince Charles recently admitted to, but industrial quantities of algae fuel, like any other, require massive plants and as yet undeveloped technologies. “It should be looked into,” says Richter, “but you cannot rely on these technologies to turn out the solutions.” In the meantime, the world’s oil supplies continue to dwindle, and the climate continues to warm. Biofuels may not be the answer to our problems. But they are an issue that shows no signs of going away.