Biofuels: An Advisable Strategy?

– I’ve been reading about Biofuels for some time now and I’ve seen that they are creating a lot of hope and optimism that they may ‘save’ us from, or at least help alleviate some of, our coming energy problems.

– I’ve had my doubts. Back behind the glowing articles have been a few darker ones which don’t seem to be getting the same degree of ‘play’ as the optimistic ones.

– These ‘other’ points of view have been pointing out that most of the world’s arable land is already in use and that to grow biofuels to cut our dependence on Oil and Gas, we cannot help but begin to cut into the land we’re using now to grow the food we eat. So, in the end, if we grow significant quantities of biofuel, we will grow less food – and this will drive food prices up strongly.

– It is true that to grow food or to grow biofuels is to use renewable resources but the renewability concept has its limits. You cannot use trees from the forests or fish from the seas faster than they can replenish themselves and you cannot grow more than a certain amount of crops on the earth – given that the total amount of arable land is limited (and will continue to diminish as global warming and desertification continue).

– The European Union has, up until now, been sanguine about integrating biofuels into their crop mix. But, now they’ve done a careful full-cost analysis of how effective biofuels really are and they are beginning to have their doubts.

– The summary from the end of this article is especially interesting:

Summing up, biodiesel cannot contribute to the solution of the problems related to the high dependency of our economy on fossil fuels. The idea that biodiesel could be a solution for the energy crisis is not only false, but also dangerous. In fact, it might favour an attitude of technological optimism and faith in a technological fix of the energy problem. We should never forget that if we want to reduce the use of fossil fuels there is no magic wand: the only possible solution is to modify consumption patterns.

– Read on, dear reader.

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Science Daily Biofuels have been an increasingly hot topic on the discussion table in the last few years. The main argument behind the policies in favour of biofuels is based on the idea that biofuels would not increase the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. However, a more careful analysis of the life cycle of biodiesel reveals that the energy (and CO2) savings is not so high as expected. It might even be negative.

In 2003 the European Union introduced a Directive suggesting that Member states should increase the share of biofuels in the energy used for transport to 2% by 2005 and 5.75% by 2010.

In 2005 the target was not reached and it will probably not be reached in 2010 either (we are in 2006 at approximately 0.8%), but in any case, the Directive showed the great interest that the European Commission places on biofuels as a way to solve many problems at once. The new European energy strategy, presented on 10th January 2007, establishes that biofuels should represent at least 10% of the energy used for transport .

Biofuels are not competitive with fossil fuel-derived products if left to the market. In order to make their price similar to those of petrol and diesel, they need to be subsidized. In Europe, biofuels are subsidized in three ways:

1) agricultural subsidies, mainly granted within the framework of the Common Agricultural Policy

2) total or partial de-taxation, which is indispensable, because energy taxes account for approximately half of the final price of petrol and diesel

3) biofuels obligations, which establish that the fuels sold at the pump must contain a given percentage of biofuels

These three political measures need financial means, which are paid for by the European Commission (agricultural subsidies), by the governments (reduced energy revenues), and by car drivers (increase in the final fuel price). For this reason, an integrated analysis is needed in order to discuss whether investing public resources in biofuels and employing a large extension of agricultural land is the most advisable strategy to solve the problems associated with fossil fuels.

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