Renew On Line (UK) 69

Extracts from NATTA's journal
Renew, Issue 169 Sept-Oct 2007
   Welcome   Archives   Bulletin         


1. UK takes a lead on offshore wind  

2. Biofuels – good or bad?  

3. Tidal Surges - and wave too 

4. After the Energy White Paper 

5. Energy Policy developments 

6. Domestic Energy plans go awry 

7. New Waste Recycling plan 

8. World Developments  

9. EU Developments  

10. Around the world  

11. Nuclear developments 

2. Biofuels – good or bad?  

‘A field of oilseed rape the size of a football pitch can provide enough fuel to power the average family car  for a year’-  ‘Farm, Food and Countyside’ National Farmers Union.

There have been a series of gruesome accounts about how the demand for palm oil for biofuels for vehicles is having major environmental impacts in Malaysia and Indonesia, impacts that will only get worse as demand in the West rises: the EU has set a target for 10% of vehicle fuel to be from bio sources by 2020. The Guardian (4/4) reported that researchers from the Dutch pressure group Wetlands International had found that up to half the space created for new palm oil plantations was cleared by draining and burning peat-land, producing huge amounts of CO2.  ‘There are bad biofuels in the world and palm oil is often the very ‘baddest,’ said Ed Matthew, biofuel specialist at Friends of the Earth. ‘Europe shouldn’t be setting targets until it’s put a mechanism in place to block bad biofuels. Palm oil is one of the cheapest biofuels in the field, but by setting targets it sends the wrong signal for businessmen.’  

As reported in Groups, FoE, WWF, RSPB and Greenpeace have called for curbs. They are not alone.  Cuba’s ailing president Fidel Castro has claimed that if rich nations decide to import huge amounts of traditional food crops, such as corn, from developing countries to help meet their energy needs, then ‘more than 3 billion people’ could be ‘condemned to premature death by hunger and thirst’. On cue, there have been food price hikes and shortages in Mexico, due it’s said to switching over corn to biofuels. Worse still, offering financing to poor countries to produce ethanol from corn or any other kind of food, could, Castro said, mean that ‘no tree will be left to defend humanity from climate change’.

It gets worse. Biofuels are meant to be green, since CO2 produced when they are burnt is absorbed when new biomass grows. But when you take account of the energy used to grow, harvest, transport and process them, the net CO2 reduction is much less, in some cases, a lot less. Worse still biofuels are not as efficient as conventional fuels- so you need more per km. The end result of all the above, including loss of carbon sinks, can, for some crops, be a negative overall carbon balance. And so when you look at the comparison/km with petrol you can get some startling conclusions. George Monbiot writing in the Guardian March 27th quoted a report by the Dutch consultancy Delft Hydraulics which he said ‘shows that every tonne of palm oil results in 33 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, or 10 times as much as petroleum produces’. This may be an extreme case- it presumably assumes the loss of the original sinks, and ignores the re-absorption of CO2 when and if more crops are grown.  But certainly, as we have regularly reported, some biofuels are better than others- e.g. biodiesel from rape seed oil and ethanol from sugar beet are pretty hopeless, ethanol from Brazilian cane is better than US corn, and some of the the so-called ‘second generation’ cellulosic biofuels are even better (see Renew 166). There is also talk of GM varieties which could be even better- if you can stomach GM.  Meanwhile though, there are real issues to face- the Guardian (5/06) reported that ‘armed groups in Colombia are driving peasants off their land to make way for plantations of palm oil’.

So what’s the future for biofuels? Some may have an important role in niche markets- for example farmers can grow their own tractor fuel and there is a lot of marginal land.  But the simple truth seems to be that, unless there are major breakthroughs, even if we just try to keep the existing world vehicle fleet moving using biofuels (quite apart from meeting expanding demand for vehicle fuel- and even at some point maybe for aircraft) we will hit some major land-use and emissions problems. And in the end there’s likely to be a major collision between food production and fuel production. That’s away off for now- there is a lot of set aside and unused land.  But we need to get it right.

FoE, Greenpeace et al have called for an interim moratorium and the development of better crops, with at least a 50% net CO2 reduction, and sensible controls on sustainable plantations. Our Reviews cover an optimistic US report which suggests that many biofuels can achieve this and more- they found that when compared with the life cycle of gasoline and diesel, ethanol and biodiesel from corn and soybean rotations reduced emissions by nearly 40%, reed canary grass by 85%, and switchgrass and hybrid poplar by 115%.  That sounds promising.  But controls will certainly be needed. However is that realistic given the huge potential commercial pressure of demand for biofuels for transport?  There will clearly be battles ahead.

(From Editorial Renew 169) 

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