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If biofuels are not the answer, then what is?

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There is mounting evidence that the current generation of biofuels do not deliver the claimed environmental benefits. But are other alternatives to petrol and diesel likely to be any more successful? The Scientific Alliance newsletter.

Going back a few years, biofuels seemed to offer at least a partial solution to the dilemma which policymakers were faced with: having committed themselves to large-scale reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, how could the targets be achieved? The sensible solution seemed to be – and in principle is – to make savings across all sectors of energy generation and use, including transport. Using agricultural crops as raw material therefore had a number of attractions, as long as it did not have too much impact on food security or prices.

Governments – notably the US and EU member states – were so convinced of this that they began to set escalating targets for the use of biofuels. However, what were originally a relatively few voices raised in dissent has more recently become a veritable chorus. Not only have concerns been raised by people who see nothing wrong in using as much oil as can be afforded, but the most hard-hitting attacks are being made by environmentalist groups; the very constituency who might have been expected to approve of fossil fuel replacements.

Most recently, Friends of the Earth Europe (partly funded, we should not forget, by the European Commission using taxpayers’ money) and ActionAid have produced a short media briefing: The bad business of biofuels. And the headline of their press release sums up their message as EU biofuel targets will cost €126billion without reducing emissions. These figures come from two new reports published by the International Institute for Sustainable Development and the University of Cologne’s FiFo Institute for Public Economics (for the full references click on the link).

Such a report may not be too surprising coming from this source, given the increasing concerns about real rather than notional savings in emissions, and the impact on farming in developing countries. One major problem is that land may be converted (eg from forestry or pasture) for use for biofuel crops and factoring in the additional carbon emissions from this – let alone the impact on biodiversity – makes expansion of the sector difficult to justify (at least according to the current orthodoxy). This is reinforced by the EU’s own (leaked) figures, which assign values to a range of biofuels (see the Euractiv article Biodiesels pollute more than crude oil, leaked data show). These are presumably taken from the much-delayed study on environmental impacts of biofuels initiated by the Commission in 2008.

The comparison is with conventional crude oil, which is taken to emit 87.5g CO2 per megajoule of energy (107g CO2/mj for oil from tar sands). The leaked figures incorporate emissions from so-called Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC). On this basis, biodiesel from palm and soy oils come in at 105 and 103g/mj respectively: a profile very similar to that of tar sands. Corn (maize) from which American bioethanol is produced has a more respectable figure of 43g/mj, while sugar cane, the feedstock in Brazil, is only 32g/mj.

The big problem is that there is a lot of biodiesel produced and used in the EU, much more than bioethanol, and its use is set to increase significantly in coming years, despite the Commission apparently knowing that the purported environmental benefits are non-existent. Nevertheless, in the world of realpolitik, decisions are often not based on rational evidence. European Voice reported last September (Commission to fudge CO2 effects of biofuel) that Connie Hedegaard (climate action commissioner) and Guenther Oettinger (energy commissioner) have agreed to delay proposals on attaching emissions values to specific biofuels until 2014, with no measures coming into force until at least two years later.

Hedegaard is known to be sceptical about the benefits of biofuels, but it seems that this is a victory for style (being seen to be doing something about climate change) over substance (doing something which might have some effect). The parallel is with the continued, expensive expansion of wind and solar energy for little real benefit. Once committed to a course of action, politicians and officials hate to admit they are wrong.

So, if biofuels (at least in their current incarnation) are not the answer to the perceived need for environmentally-friendly transport, what is? The ‘hydrogen economy’ is still favoured by some, but it’s really difficult to see why. Electrolysing water and compressing (or liquefying) and storing hydrogen are energy intensive processes which simply produce an alternative energy carrier to the oil-based fuels currently used. The hydrogen can power conventional internal combustion engines or, if they ever become commercially viable, generate electricity in fuel cells.

Ignoring the horrendous practical problems of storage and containment, the only apparent advantage of hydrogen-fuelled cars is that water vapour alone comes out the exhaust pipe: a step forward for air quality in cities, but surely creating its own problems in freezing air. The energy for electrolysis must come from a renewable source – hydro, geothermal, wind, solar, etc – for the hydrogen use to give the targeted emissions savings and to make any sense at all. Indeed, this could be the best use for the inherently intermittent output from wind turbines or solar panels. But the likelihood of hydrogen-powered vehicles on the roads in any numbers during the lifetime of any readers is remote, at best.

Which leaves us, for now at least, with the alternative of electric cars. Hyped as the future of motoring, and enthusiastically promoted by politicians, some people obviously have great faith in them. Not so the public: in the UK for example, despite grants of up to £5,000 to bring the purchase price closer to that of conventional cars, only about a thousand were sold last year. The total of 2,149 now on the road are served by 2,500 special charging points (Electric avenue – the Observer). Despite the launch of models by major manufacturers, they are likely to remain a minority interest until key issues such as cost, range, battery life and rapid battery exchange points are sorted. And, of course, they make no more sense than hydrogen-fuelled cars unless the electricity is from renewable sources.

All this strongly suggests that oil-fuelled conventional cars (and lorries, and planes and ships) will remain the norm for the next few decades. Manufacturers continue to develop and refine engines, and enormous strides have been made in fuel efficiency. Doubtless something better will come along, just as the internal combustion engine replaced the horse, but an undeveloped or unsuitable technology cannot simply be foisted on an unwilling public by eager politicians. They should encourage research and development, but stop supporting biofuels until they make economic and environmental sense.

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Extpub | by Dr. Radut