Do biofuels cause more harm than the benefits they provide and should there be a Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation?

Tropical Forest

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 

16 Responses

  1. I think that politicians have a hard job; they have to make the right decisions but in doing so their decision making in a democracy is influenced by the fact that they want to be re-elected. Their desire to be re-elected distorts their judgement or justifies a decision made to appease the electorate on the grounds that their are better than the other lot even if they make the odd bad decision, because the other lot will harm the country much more.

  2. The desire to be re-elected is because they really love the trappings of power, democracy is basically the lobbyist with the deepest pockets such as oil companies, electricity and Gas Industry.
    Never mind Genersys is I am sure much more agile than the oil companies, lobbying for Genesys would not need to be pay offs/freebies for MPs like the Oil industry it could be education for the public, which is much more closer to democracy than lobbying. Another point to remember, is that it is a lot harder for a giant to change direction and It is hard for one of these giants to grow any bigger.
    Companies such as BP and Shell have big budgets to market their “green energy” divisions however most of the budget goes on advertisements, the advertisements are not selling an eco-friendly product they are purely PR pretty much like the government I think! The big oil companies could have helped to build momentum in the Renewable energy industry but of course they do not want to because it would accelerate their demise, so they pretend to be angels and they pretend they have realized how much damage oil is doing. Making people starve and causing more CO2 emissions is not a good solution!!
    Have you released your book “the energy age” as a .pdf?
    If not could I suggest that you do, i have a personal copy and it gives an excellent overview of the current energy situation. is really good public place to publish.

  3. We have to be very careful with biofuels; we exploit the third world terribly as it is, but to take away their food so that we can drive around in over powered cars or fly cheaply around the world will cause, in the long term, resentment, and ultimately increase pressure by forcing peoples to move from where they now live to places where they they will not starve.

    The Energy Age as a pdf is a good idea.


  4. .pdf books increase our knowledge with a tiny fraction of the carbon emissions I have the project Gutenberg library on DVD. your book the energy age would I estimate would be about 30-40MB because it has quite a few pictures. without the pictures a .pdf of the book could be as small as 1MB.
    Benjamin Crowell, crowell@ , has free concise Physics textbooks which he has published on his website, If you made Energy Age .pdf public domain I would love to have a copy! .pdf is so much easier to search for keywords! It is possible to search many .pdf books at the same time for a keywords using adobe acrobat full search. With paper books that would take weeks to do! The Energy age is gathering dust behind the counters of B&Q where I bought my copy!
    OK I think I have already persuaded you to give your book away free as a .pdf, Here is another free book “The Idea Virus” from the master of Marketing “Seth Godin” which will be a worthwhile read for you to make an impact on the energy problem and then to write chapter 13 of the Energy age! What I am trying to say is that your book offers a good insight on how to tackle the energy problem so release it as an idea virus.

    Click to access IdeaVirusReadandShare.pdf

  5. I’ll look at that Peter


  6. Great, I was searching for something along the lines of this. I was thinking, do you think newsletters are still an good way of marketing online? Does anybody still use them successfully and actually acquire readers?

    Appreciate the help!

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