Posts Tagged ‘biofuels’

Let’s look at what happened in the last week or so.
On 4th July, The Guardian obtained an internal report from the World Bank estimating that biofuels have caused world food prices to rise by 75% (it seems I was far too optimistic on that previously).

On 5th July Gordon Brown gave an interview to The Guardian, in which he said he was going to tell the G8 nations that the problems of climate change and international development should not be sidelined by the credit crunch.

On the 7th July he launched a campaign to drastically reduce food waste in the UK, in an attempt to combat the escalating world food prices.
The very same day, the Government announced that they will be continuing with the requirement to have 2.5% biofuel in all transport fuel, although the planned percentage increases over the coming years will be reduced.

So let’s just recap. We are told to stop wasting our food on the grounds that we need to do everything possible to restrict food price increases, and on the same day we are told biofuels are going to continue to be in our fuel for the foreseeable future, despite the fact that they cause food price escalation, and starve millions.

A few days later, after the widely reported multiple-course lunches at the G8 summit, the issue of climate change seems to have passed the Leaders’ lips. Maybe between courses 6 and 7? It can’t have taken much longer than that, because they made minimal progress. Not even that.

The attempted 50% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 agreed by the G8 is the only thing that hit the headlines. The UK Government is already supposed to be thinking about a 60% cut by 2050 (in the Climate Bill which seems to have been lost without trace – maybe they left it in a taxi, or on a train). It’s commonly accepted now that an 80% cut is what we really need, with lots of educated voices saying 90% or 100% cuts are required, if not more.

The G8 announcement was so lame that even the head Economist of the Governments own Carbon Trust said it was crap – “an abrogation of responsibility” , as well as a whole host of the usual groups like Greenpeace etc. stating the obvious about it being a great let-down.

So it seems that, yet again, large international talks have come and gone, and all it that came of it was that our mighty world leaders agreed that something should probably be done sometime. But not any time soon, and certainly not with scientifically determined goals.

In the meantime, the Met Office tells us that spring is now arriving 6 days early in the UK , and satellites are showing that the vast Wilkins ice shelf in the Antarctic is collapsing. In winter.

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Mr. Darling’s first budget was this week, and days before he announced it there was lots of speculation about a big green, tree-hugging, hippie-loving budget coming our way. Reading the section on these issues entitled “An Environmentally Sustainable World”, I think the verdict from Environmentalists is likely to be ‘Improving, but could do a lot better’.

The first announcements are car taxes. From next year it’s going to cost you £425 to tax your car if it emits more than 255g CO2 per kilometer, and from 2010 the ‘most polluting cars’ will have a first-year rate of £950. There will be reductions in tax for cars emitting 150g CO2 per km or less and discounts for ‘alternatively fuelled cars’(1).

Unfortunately, I doubt this will be enough to stop people from buying heavily polluting cars, but it might add a small amount of pressure on car manufacturers too, which has to be a good thing. It’s hardly the £2000 tax that had been speculated in the press(2) – if these taxes increased year-on-year then I think we might be getting somewhere – but it’s a start.

Next up was tax on fuel. It is increasing above inflation, which is going to piss a lot of people off, but is likely to have a pretty minimal effect on emissions on its own, if any. People need to get from A to B, and if their only option is a crappy, expensive bus or an unreliable, expensive train, then they are going to pay for petrol no matter how much it costs.

Which brings us on to public transport. If you can find it. Of the 20 pages in the chapter, six lines of text are given to public transport. Am I the only one that finds that a bit alarming? Apparently the Secretary of State for Transport will soon publish a document on ‘the reform of bus subsidy’ to include carbon emissions and technology proposals. Something tells me it’s not going to exactly revolutionise our public transport, but we’ll see.

And then there comes the dreaded B word. Biofuels. You can almost hear the collective sigh from the environmentalists across the nation (see previous post on biofuels).

But hold on, this may not be as bad as it first appears. Although the Government is still planning on using biofuels as a big part of it’s climate change strategy, there is going to be a study of the “wider economic and environmental impacts” and the Chancellor and several other senior Government figures have written to the EU to outline what they believe should be the principles governing EU policies on biofuels. These include ‘robust sustainability standards’, making sure they are reducing emissions, and ensuring they take into account the indirect effects of biofuels.

If this rhetoric is not followed up with strictly controlled regulation of biofuels sourcing and use, then we are in for big trouble. But if these are put in place to make sure they are reducing overall emissions and not causing an escalation of food prices etc. then it might be a small help.

There is lots of reiteration of general Government policies – carbon pricing, investing in new technologies etc. but the only real news is that all non-domestic buildings should be zero-carbon by 2019 – adding to the previous announcement that all new homes should be zero-carbon by 2016. (This is a great start, but I suspect the Government hasn’t even begun to think about the huge change and investment required for this to actually happen.)

And of course there is always the news that there will be Government intervention if retailers don’t do something about plastic bags – which, although undeniably a good thing, is not going to have a significant effect on global warming.

If you thought that sounded vaguely encouraging, think again. The next sections on aviation and energy supply are as lame as you would expect from a Government that is planning to expand airports and build lots of new coal power plants. No wonder Charles Clarke (former Home Secretary) thinks that the Governments action on climate change is embarrassing(3).

The ‘greenest’ budget yet? Probably. But future budgets will need to be a lot better than this unless we want Downing Street to be underwater in the future.

1. Budget 2008, Chapter 6 – “An Environmentally Sustainable World”. This can be found here.
2. Budget to target cars with new taxes – Ben Russell,The Independent Online, 10th March 2008.
3. Clarke attacks Brown’s ’embarrassing’ green policies – Hélène Mulholland, The Guardian Online, 6th March 2008.

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Recently the Environmental Audit Committee group of MPs, led by the Conservative MP Tim Yeo, produced their report ‘Are Biofuels Sustainable?’ in which they tried to find out the answer to the title (1). Their conclusion? That there should be a moratorium on biofuels until “technology improves, robust mechanisms to prevent damaging land use change are developed, and international sustainability standards are agreed”(1).

Regular worshippers at the church of George Monbiot – activist and sensible person generally – will know that he suggested this should be the answer to the problem of biofuels nearly a year ago (2) and this was also suggested more recently by the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, who got a lot of press for saying that biofuels were “a crime against humanity”(3)

The word biofuel is a broad term used for a renewable fuel produced through biological reactions using the suns energy and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They include fuels that are designed for use in conventional combustion engines such as ‘bioethanol’ and ‘biodiesel’ (this is the main appeal of biofuels – it gives Governments an apparent ‘get out of jail free card’ meaning they can appear to be combating climate change while causing minimal annoyance to the general public) as well as things like normal firewood.

Carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere when biofuels are burnt is offset by the carbon dioxide taken in to produce the fuel, and this is the basis for excitement about them.

So far so good, but clearly that is only half the story. There are two main problems with biofuels at the moment, each of which makes them potentially disastrous for the globe.

Firstly, the processes involved in much of biofuel production are large net producers of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases due to pesticides, harvesting and processing requirements – all of which requires more energy, which at the moment comes from burning fossil fuels. Overall many biofuels may actually cause more harm to the environment than fossil fuels do(4).

Secondly there is the link to food prices. As more and more farmers across the world begin to produce biofuels instead of basic food crops, the price of food will escalate and the global poor will suffer as a result (5), especially as the farmers likely to be paid to convert to these crops are in lesser developed countries.

There is also the problem of energy density. A very large amount of a biofuel crop (and therefore a large land area to grow it) is required to produce a relatively small amount of usable energy compared to the fossil fuels we are used to using. In a study by LMC International on biofuels and agriculture in 2006 (widely referenced since) it was found that in order to make 5% of fuel worldwide biofuels by 2015, we would need 15% more land for agriculture worldwide (6). That means saying goodbye to forests and rainforests (closely averted recently in Uganda (7)) as well as inevitable switching from food to fuel production. That would mean game over for trying to restrict climate change – and that’s just for 5%!

In 2007 the EU agreed to a target of 10% of transport fuel in Europe to come from biofuels by 2020(8). Less than a year later the EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas admitted that they had not foreseen the problems that this target would present(9) and that it would be reviewed, but as far as I am aware at the time of writing the target still stands.

So if biofuels are so bad why are there calls for a 5-year moratorium and not an all-out ban? The thinking behind this is that so-called ‘second-generation’ biofuels (which would demand another entire piece like this one to explain), with carefully controlled production, may still be able to provide renewable and ethical sources of energy in the future (although these are not likely to be viable according to the campaign group Biofuelwatch (www.biofuelwatch.org.uk)(10). Also, calculations on land requirements for biofuel production in the UK may not always take into account that many biofuel crops grown are dual purpose, and may simultaneously produce animal feed, possibly reducing required imports presently (according to the NFU – ref.11).

It remains to be seen whether these ‘second generation’ promises materialise, but whatever happens one thing is for sure – we can’t rely on biofuels to solve the problem of climate change.

The consequences of pursuing the use of the presently available biofuels are obvious and are already starting to take effect. Governments and International bodies need to discard their biofuel targets before they make the problem any worse. Pleading unfortunate ignorance of the consequences is not acceptable.

1. Are Biofuels Sustainable? – Environmental Audit Committee, First Report of Session 2007–08. Available from http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmenvaud.htm#reports.
2. A Lethal Solution – George Monbiot, 27th March 2007.
3. UN independent rights expert calls for five-year freeze on biofuel production – UN News Centre, 26 October 2007.
4. How Green Are Biofuels? – Jörn Scharlemann and William Laurance, Science Vol. 319. no. 5859, pp. 43 – 44.
5. IMF concerned by impact of biofuels on food prices – AFP, October 17, 2007.
6. A Strategic Assessment of the Impact of Biofuel Demand for Agricultural Commodities – LMC International (2006).
7. Uganda ‘averts tragedy’ with reversal of decision to clear virgin forest for biofuel – Xan Rice, The Guardian, October 29, 2007.
8. EU ministers agree biofuel target – bbc.co.uk, 15th February 2007.
9. EU rethinks biofuels guidelines – Roger Harrabin, bbc.co.uk, 14 January 2008.
10. ‘Second Generation Biofuels: An Unproven Future Technology with Unknown Risks’ – Helena Paul and Almuth Ernsting, biofuelwatch.org.uk. Click here to download.
11. ‘UK biofuels – land required to meet RTFO 2010’ – National Farmers’ Union Online, 10 August 2006.

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