Biofuels- a cold look at a hot issue

Biofuels have been all the rage lately among EU decision makers and Council seems bound on setting an ambitious new binding target for their use. As climate change has finally made it to the top of the political agenda biofuels are being hailed as the silver bullet. Everybody seems to agree they are also a key to the future of the CAP, but consensus ends there. Some see energy production as the perfect excuse to maintain and even restore production subsidies, while others see the opportunity to junk the subsidies as farmers will be making a living from selling (subsidised) biofuels. A closer look shows that the debate is largely misguided.

First of all, analysis shows that the contribution that current biofuels can make is tiny. Energy efficiency, demand reduction, other renewables and the use of biomass for heat and power production are the areas where difference can be made. The EU’s determination to go for ambitious and binding targets only for biofuels makes no sense.

Second, the greenhouse gas benefit of biofuels is hugely varied. Subsidizing biofuels, without looking carefully into their greenhouse gas balance is a recipe for wasting public money. Even worse, the land needs of biofuel production are so huge that the environmental risks outweigh the potential benefits. Making a few percentage points difference on the energy scene means using a huge portion of Europe’s, or indeed the world’s land. Promoting the wrong biofuels would mean large scale damage, be it from further unchecked intensification in Europe or increased tropical deforestation.

Biofuels can still give a contribution to tackling climate change and play a positive role in agriculture, but we must get the policy objectives right and create the right system of incentives. On the objective side, we must abandon the idea that biofuel production is, per se, a public good. It is not. The public good is greenhouse gas emission reduction which agriculture can deliver in many ways: by emitting less, by storing more carbon in soil, and by producing biomass, including biofuels. On the delivery side, the key is life cycle analysis. Any public subsidies, whether direct or indirect, should only go where a substantial greenhouse gas benefit can be shown, and only after being screened for impacts on other environmental goods such as biodiversity and water. Silver bullets are only good for shooting ghosts. Real life problems call for clear vision and good policies. – agriculture/bioenergy

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1 Reply to “Biofuels- a cold look at a hot issue”

  1. Your argument is echoed by Graham Harvey, writing in The Guardian today. He describes public subsidies for boosting ethanol production from corn as “throwing good money after bad”. He continues:

    “If ethanol has a role to play in solving the world’s energy crisis it should be made from sugar cane in the tropics. Producing biofuel this way is hugely more efficient than producing it from UK wheat – or American corn for that matter. If British cereal growers would only return to what they once did best – growing wholesome food – they would make a far bigger contribution to combating climate change. They would start putting atmospheric carbon back into the soil where it will do a lot more good for the rest of us.”

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