Biofuel Madness

Biofuels are unfortunately an important part of European Union and United Kingdom policy. At the moment the United Kingdom sources about 3% of its vehicle fuel from plants, which have starchy or woody cellulose content, which is fermented to create ethanol. In the United States a great deal of ethanol is made from corn. Biofuels are used in transport and in heating.

Growing fuel instead of digging for it or drilling for it may sound sustainable and environmentally friendly, but things are not always as they appear. The theory behind biofuels is that they are renewable; instead of depleting a fossil fuel source humanity may grow as much fuel as it needs. The carbon dioxide emitted by burning biofuels will be taken from the atmosphere by more biofuel plants, which will photosynthesise it thus removing it from the air and create more biofuels with the carbon dioxide.

That is a simplistic view of biofuels, and it fails to look at the whole life cycle impact of biofuel production. The simplistic theory might be for practical purposes workable if we had unlimited land resources and a small world population. However, people are populous and land is finite – as Mark Twain remarked “they stopped making it”.

The growth of biofuels has led to some unintended consequences. Good land used for food is now used for energy; food prices have risen. Many forests particularly in the tropics have been cut down for biofuel plantations; much of the wood has been burnt, and the soil disturbed creating a large spike of emissions; biodiversity has been lost and rows of palm oil trees now replace what was an important alveoli and air conditioner for the planet.

There are biofuels that can be sustainably grown in places where the land is not fit for anything else, and which can be cropped with no significant adverse environmental impact. At the moment about a third of the United Kingdom’s biofuel falls into this category and unfortunately local law and EU regulations do not distinguish between good biofuel and bad biofuel. It is about time we did.