Things are not what they seem when it comes to renewable energy. Most people, including those who should know better, think that all energy from renewable sources is equally benign and all should be supported equally. In fact this simplistic approach can cause more damage than benefits. You end up with heat pumps and biomass boilers being installed in places where they cause more emissions than traditional fossil fuels, for example.
We have to be discriminating in our energy choices and that applies to renewable energy as much as it applies to fossil fuels. In the world of energy there is no democracy – only hard facts and science that should determine what we do. There has been a rush towards using more biofuels. I cannot really describe it as a rush, more of the typical slow shuffle that typifies the UK’s use of renewable energy, but even a shuffle, it is shuffles to a worse place, is a bad thing.
Biofuels are fuels for transportation made from plants. Brazil uses the most biofuels at the moment converting sugar cane into ethanol, but the countries of south east Asia are converting rain forests into palm plantations, which are subsequently used as biofuels. The United States is giving over more and more hectares to produce biofuels from maize.
Yesterday the Chief Government Scientist, Professor Robert Watson, urged caution; we should not rush into biofuels, he said, because their apparent carbon saving benefits may be outweighed by their emissions in production and other important environmental bad effects.
It was an important intervention because a Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation – requiring petrol and diesel sellers to use 2 ½ % of their products from biofuels come into effect on April Fool’s Day, and the last thing that the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation should do is increase overall carbon dioxide emissions when it is supposed to reduce them.
As I see it there are four issues:-
1. Biofuels produced from virgin forest land do damage by releasing the carbon dioxide stored in the forest, usually by burning, without us being sure that the replacement fuel will store away as much as has been lost.
2. Ploughing virgin land releases carbon dioxide in the soil; although not enough research has been done some scientists believe that this release easily outweighs any fossil fuel carbon saving. There is some research that indicates that it takes around ten years for a newly planted forest to become carbon neutral because as you clear the ground to plant trees your ground clearance releases carbon dioxide in rotting organic matter in the soil. The way to produce a carbon store using trees quickly is to retain what you have and let the forests naturally regenerate and spread slowly.
3. There is no way at present of ensuring that your biofuel comes from a sustainable non damaging source.
4. The giving over of land from food production to fuel production has sent food prices spiralling. Ask any Mexican (whose staple is maize) what has happened to corn prices in the last twelve months.
Professor Watson is an experienced and renowned scientist who understands the complexities of climate change. We should heed his advice and make sure that the shuffle to biofuels does not turn into a rush, but rather stands still while we pause awhile to consider things more carefully.
There is an interesting article in the New Scientist about carbon dioxide in the soil which outlines the issues; you can read it at http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn2958