The biofuels controversy

Civilization Museum stairwell

Ricardo Hausmann, over at the Financial Times, has written an article on why biofuels are wonderful, not to mention the wave of the future. He says that current oil prices guarantee the long-term viability of biofuels, that there is lots of under-utilized land to grow them on, that the market can sort out the fuel/food issue, that higher profits for farmers from biofuel production will reduce government subsidies, and that developing countries will benefit because they have the most under-utilized land. Hausmann concludes that:

Standards will have to be developed to allow the energy and automotive industries to co-ordinate technologies. To make this scenario appealing, the impact of the expansion of the agricultural frontier on the environment and biodiversity, and the distributive effects of the rise in food prices will have to be addressed.

But these problems seem solvable given the expected political benefits in terms of lower net carbon emissions, more energy security, more efficient agricultural policies and greater opportunities for sustainable development.

While there is some reason to share his enthusiasm for biofuels, it is becoming increasingly clear that they have very serious (perhaps fatal) technical and ethical problems. The idea that biofuel profits will reduce government support for agriculture is also laughably naive.

Perhaps the most outspoken critic of biofuels is George Monbiot – British journalist and author of Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning. In his most recent article on the subject, Monbiot pans biofuels as both ecologically ineffective and ethically unsound. He argues that their purported climate change benefits are over-stated:

[Nitrous oxide emissions] alone ensure that ethanol from maize causes between 0.9 and 1.5 times as much warming as petrol, while rapeseed oil (the source of more than 80% of the world’s biodiesel) generates 1-1.7 times the impact of diesel. This is before you account for the changes in land use.

A paper published in the journal Science three months ago suggests that protecting uncultivated land saves, over 30 years, between two and nine times the carbon emissions you might avoid by ploughing it and planting biofuels.

He also argues that the drive towards biofuels will literally starve the poor, as farmers start using their land, water, and labour to fuel SUVs rather than feed people. He cites how Swaziland, in the grip of famine and receiving food aid, is nonetheless pushing to expand biofuel production from their main crop: cassava. His concerns do not seem unfounded, given how the amount of corn it takes to fill the tank of an SUV could feed a hungry person for a year.

Jean Ziegler, the United Nations’ independent expert on the right to food, has called biofuels “a catastrophe for the poor” and a “crime against humanity.” Such concerns deserve to be taken seriously. While it may ultimately be both possible and necessary to use biofuels for air travel (given the absence of any alternatives to liquid-fuelled engines for planes), it seems entirely possible that the drive towards biofuels for ground transport will further increase the harm being caused to the developed world and the biosphere by the unsustainable behaviours of the rich.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

19 thoughts on “The biofuels controversy”

  1. Over at R-Squared, there is a post taking Hausmann to task:

    Saturday, November 10, 2007
    Delusions of a Harvard Professor

    Hausmann, like so many others, doesn’t have a clear understanding of just how much oil we actually consume. As I have pointed out before, the entire U.S. output of ethanol is only equivalent to a single mid-sized oil refinery. The scale difference is immense. And Hausmann’s article represents the kind of delusional thinking that runs rampant among those who don’t have a solid grip on our energy usage.

  2. “Well then there’s our solution. All we have to do is use technology to move the U.S. and Europe to the tropics, where high year-round levels of solar-insolation are key to producing cheap ethanol. Then, it should be a simple matter to get the average American consumer to cut their oil usage from 27 barrels a year to the 4.2 barrels that the Brazilians use. Problem solved. The future has never been clearer.”

  3. World Ethanol Industry Letter to UN Secretary General
    November 12, 2007

    Dear Mr. Secretary-General:

    As representatives of the world’s leading ethanol producers, we are deeply concerned with the Interim Report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food submitted to the General Assembly on August 22 and with Mr. Jean Ziegler’s public declarations to the international media in late October.

    The apocalyptic statements made by the Special Rapporteur, calling biofuels production a “crime against humanity” and a “recipe for disaster,” are not only unjustified but also unacceptable to those of us who contribute to this emerging industry and millions of people around the world who benefit from renewable biofuels everyday.

    In the interest of building a constructive dialogue and highlighting the positive impact that a dynamic and robust biofuels market can have on the world, we would like to outline some of the most disconcerting misrepresentations in this interim report.

    Biofuels do not lead to famine. The report preys on the food vs. fuel debate, claiming that biofuels are responsible for current and future significant increases in food prices and suggesting that biofuels will lead to widespread hunger in poor countries. As Nobel Prize winner Dr. Amartya Sen pointed out ten years ago, worldwide hunger does not result from insufficient food production but rather from low income and unemployment, which limit the access to food. Lack of infrastructure, weak institutions and misguided public policies also contribute to the unequal distribution of food around the world.

    As you may recall, a 2005 report presented to the UN’s Committee on Agriculture noted that agriculture and forestry products such as sugarcane, maize and manure could become leading sources of energy, a key element in achieving the Millennium Development Goals of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger and ensuring environmental sustainability. The 2005 report also anticipated a significant switch from a fossil fuel to a bioenergy-based economy that would benefit not only the rural poor but also the whole planet, since biofuels can help mitigate climate change.
    Blame petroleum, not agricultural prices. The report ignores the fact that food prices have increased far less than petroleum prices. Over the last three years, when biofuels gained momentum, agricultural prices have gone up by 7% while oil prices jumped by more than 70%. In fact, the sharp increase in oil prices is largely responsible for the increase in food prices. Moreover, higher oil prices are the result of rising demand in fast growing emerging countries like China and India, adverse climatic conditions in some regions, and speculation on international markets. Contrary to the interim report, higher agricultural prices provide additional income to farmers in developed and developing countries negatively affected by low international prices during many years. Moreover, we should not fail to recognize that the agricultural production model of large scale is an option that allows better returns due to economies of scale, which in turn would increase significantly agricultural productivity.
    Biofuels drive social and economic improvements. When referring to labor conditions and other concerns, the interim report selectively highlights isolated cases that do not reflect the overall situation and direction prevailing in countries producing biofuels. For instance, the report fails to mention the social improvements, the job opportunities and the income growth that are associated with the growing biofuels industry. It is not happenstance that so many government leaders are exploring initiatives in the area of production of biofuels around the world – they all see an opportunity to increase their countries wealth by diversifying away from costly foreign petroleum dependency.

    As several respected and independent bodies such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, The Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. (FAO), and the Inter-American Development Bank have recently corroborated, biofuels offer an opportunity to developing countries to revitalize agricultural production, to expand and diversify exports, and to produce a domestic source of electric power through co-generation. This last effort will bring electricity to rural areas that currently are unconnected to national distribution networks and can dramatically reduce oil import costs for these countries. And lest we forget, by replacing imports of crude oil or refined products with locally produced biofuels, many countries can save large sums of money can be allocated to the local economy instead of fuel imports.

    Biofuels can help ameliorate the climate crisis today. As this year’s Nobel Peace Prize Laureates remind us, global warming is a pressing challenge that needs to be addressed without any further delay. Biofuels provides one of the most sensible and attractive solutions to date, particularly considering biofuels’ contribution to the reduction of CO2 emissions, which has been repeatedly confirmed by several respected international studies, including by the International Energy Agency. Imposing a five-year moratorium on one of the most practical and immediate alternatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions runs counter to the very urgency of our climate crisis. The United Nations has been in the forefront of the international organizations raising concerns about climate change and global warming. We hope it will continue to do so and leverage the work of biofuels in this mission.

    Mr. Secretary General, we urge the United Nations to review the Interim Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food with a focus on sound science, credible studies, and a comprehensive view of the biofuels sector rather than unsupported assumptions and selected anecdotes. We stand ready to participate in this revision process. Specifically, each signatory to this letter plans to submit additional comments and recommendations to the Special Rapporteur to address specific inaccuracies and concerns regarding its policy recommendations.
    At a time when countries around the world are seeking alternatives to the economic and environmental problems caused by oil dependency, we trust that the United Nations will do its part to encourage governments around the world toward a sensible and constructive approach for biofuels that our members have pursued and millions of consumers – poor and rich – have learned to expect.

  4. American domestic biofuel production currently stands at under 7 billion gallons, and experts say that production of corn-based ethanol will likely max-out at 15 billion gallons. Beyond that, the additional renewable fuel production will likely need to be met largely with cellulosic ethanol — and technology for that fuel is not commercially viable.

    Industry officials say cellulosic technology is unlikely to come online in the time envisioned by the administration and many lawmakers, making it all but impossible to meet the biofuel mandate.

  5. Biofuels bonanza facing ‘crash’
    By Roger Harrabin
    Environment Analyst, BBC News, Valencia

    The biofuels bonanza will crash unless producers can guarantee their crops have been produced responsibly, the UN’s environment agency chief has said.

    Achim Steiner of the UN Environment Programme (Unep) said there was an urgent need for standards to make sure rainforests weren’t being destroyed.

    Biofuel makers also had to show their products did not produce more CO2 than they negated, he told BBC News.

  6. “It certainly appeared a year ago that we were going to have a national push on ethanol, and we wanted to have the vehicles ready. But we always knew that food-based ethanol would not be the answer. The shift to cellulosic ethanol has been slower than we were led to believe. If we don’t end up with cellulosic ethanol quickly, we are going to hit the wall on ethanol.”

    — William Clay Ford, Jr., chairman of Ford Motor Co.

  7. FAR above the treetops, in Indonesia’s remote Papuan provinces, the spotter planes are circling. They are looking for a place to strip the forest and produce the big cash crop of the moment: palm oil. And if not palm oil then jatropha, cassava or sugar cane, all of which can be used as either food or biofuel. With the price of oil so high these crops have become known as green gold, and they are being sought in some of the last remaining tracts of virgin rainforest in Asia.

    Few of the Papuan tribesmen who live in these forests have any idea what the planes up above are doing. Nor do they realise that the future of their land for ten generations could well be determined by the people flying them.

    On one side, the Indonesian government wants to become the world’s biggest producer of palm oil and seems ready to sign a number of multi-million hectare concessions—lasting up to 100 years—on Papuan land. The contracts are worth around $8.5 billion. Opposing them are many governments around the world, who worry about the carbon emissions such deforestation would invite. And on another side still is the regional Papuan government, which has its own ideas about what should be done with the land. In the middle of all this are the people who actually live in the forest. Nobody seems quite certain what they want.

  8. Biofuel: corn isn’t the king of this growing domain


    We fully agree with your Editorial ‘Kill king corn’ (Nature 449, 637 2007) that corn (maize) is not a good feedstock for biofuels for a host of environmental, economic and humanitarian reasons.

    We also agree that a sustainable biofuels industry needs to rely on non-food crops, such as cellulose from switchgrass or poplar trees, jatropha and possibly corn stover (stalks). Further research and development is necessary before such feedstocks will become commercially viable.

    In the United States, neither the 51 cents per gallon tax allowance given to blenders who mix ethanol (the biofuel derived from corn) into their petrol, nor the 54 cents per gallon tariff on imported ethanol are defensible. The latter serves largely to keep low-cost Brazilian ethanol from sugar cane out of the country.

    Unfortunately, the new Farm Bill currently moving through Congress looks almost certain to preserve the farm-subsidy system of direct payments based on a per-bushel price scale for corn and other major crops. Subsidies go mainly to large farm operations, as these produce the most bushels. Corn producers have been among the largest beneficiaries of these subsidies, which encourage overproduction and excessive use of nitrogen fertilizer, the main source of the very potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. A new report from the National Academy of Sciences, Water Implications of Biofuels Production in the United States, also warns: “If projected future increases in use of corn for ethanol production do occur, the increase in harm to water quality could be considerable.”

    The current system of farm subsidies should have been reformed long ago to reward sound environmental practices, set an income cap for those receiving government payments and provide insurance against weather-related disasters.

    But rather than killing king corn, we would prefer to say that the emperor — corn-based ethanol — has no clothes.

  9. Low faith in biofuels for climate
    By Richard Black
    Environment correspondent, BBC News website

    Decision-makers in the climate change field have little faith in biofuels as a low-carbon technology, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) says.

    “Of 18 technologies suggested by IUCN, the current generation of biofuels came bottom of the list, with only 21% believing in its potential to “lower overall carbon levels in the atmosphere without unacceptable side effects” over the next 25 years.

    Nearly twice as many were confident in the potential of nuclear energy, while solar power for hot water and solar power for electricity emerged as the most favoured low-carbon technologies.

    Overall, respondents said increasing energy efficiency and reducing demand could produce more benefits than “clean” energy sources. “

  10. “I really would like to vote for this bill because we desperately need an energy bill. The world and particularly the United States faces a real challenge on energy in the future. But I cannot vote for this bill primarily because of the corn ethanol mandate. A recent article in The Economist noted that our use of corn for ethanol doubled the price of corn about a year ago. Farmers then moved lands from soybeans and what would have been in soybeans and wheat to corn. We now have further increased the cost of corn and we’ve increased the cost of soybeans and wheat the world around. And one of the members of the United Nations says what we’ve done is a crime against humanity. The effect we’ve had on gasoline use has been absolutely trifling. The National Academy of Sciences says that if we converted all of our corn, all of our corn, to ethanol and discounted for fossil fuel input it would displace 2.4% of our gasoline. Mr. Chairman, this really represents one of those times as the old farmer says that ‘the juice ain’t worth the squeezing.’ We can do better.”

    — Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.), on why he voted against HR-6, the energy bill passed today by the House of Representatives

  11. According to IFPRI, the expansion of ethanol and other biofuels could reduce calorie intake by another 4-8% in Africa and 2-5% in Asia by 2020. For some countries, such as Afghanistan and Nigeria, which are only just above subsistence levels, such a fall in living standards could be catastrophic.


  12. Nature Reports Climate Change
    Published online: 12 December 2007 | doi:10.1038/climate.2007.71

    The backlash against biofuels

    Kurt Kleiner

    While the US and EU plan major investments in bioethanol and biodiesel, critics argue that biofuels carry too high a cost. Kurt Kleiner reports.

  13. A proposed European Commission ban on biofuels deemed environmentally unfit is likely to have a global impact on a type of renewable energy once touted as key to weaning economies from oil and curbing emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

    The proposal — which could affect how palm oil biofuel is produced in Southeast Asia or how corn ethanol is made in the United States — was unveiled last month as part of the European Union’s ambitious plan to fight climate change. The plan forces member states to cut carbon emissions by 20 percent while making sure biofuels make up at least 10 percent of transportation fuels by 2020.

    To meet renewable energy targets and be eligible for subsidies, biofuels used in Europe must emit at least 35 percent less carbon dioxide compared to oil and must not be produced in areas currently covered by forests, nature preserves, wetlands or highly biodiverse grasslands.

    Biofuels that fail to meet the standards won’t be allowed on the European market. Those that do will be rewarded with a premium, with binding targets meant to offer certainty to investors who will know they can sell environmentally sustainable biofuels at a higher price. Producers will have to prove to member states that they meet the standards, and their claims will be independently audited. The commission also pledged to designate sustainability requirements for biomass by the end of 2010.

    “While biofuels are the only viable alternative transport fuel for the foreseeable future, at least until hydrogen becomes competitive, their growth requires criteria to be set for the environmental sustainability of biofuels,” Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, said last month in a speech at Lehman Brothers in London. “I think our focus should be firmly on only sustainable biofuels, that is to say only those which produce a substantial CO2 saving compared to the oil that would be consumed instead.

    “I feel confident that the outcome will provide the most comprehensive and sustainable system anywhere in the world for the certification of biofuels and for domestic and imported biofuels alike,” he added. “We will continue to promote the rapid development of second generation biofuels. This is critical to attaining public confidence that the environmental benefits of using biofuels outweigh any possible disadvantages.”

    Europe has encouraged the production of biofuels since 2003, when the European Parliament set a biofuels target of 5.75 percent of all transportation fuel on the market by the end of 2010, with 2 percent to be reached by 2005.

    But this interim target hasn’t been achieved, with biofuels counting for 1 percent of transport fuel in 2005. The European Commission has concluded the 2010 target will also be missed, with biofuels reaching 4.2 percent of transport fuels by then.

  14. Biofuels are the means by which governments in the rich world avoid hard choices. Rather than raise fuel economy standards as far as technology allows, rather than promoting a shift from driving to public transport, walking and cycling, rather than insisting on better town planning to reduce the need to travel, they have chosen to exchange our wild overconsumption of petroleum for the wild overconsumption of fuel made from crops. No one has to drive less or make a better car: everything remains the same except the source of fuel. The result is a competition between the world’s richest and poorest consumers, a contest between overconsumption and survival. There was never any doubt about which side would win.

    Already, 40% of US corn (maize) production is used to feed cars. The proportion will rise this year as a result of the smaller harvest. Though the market for biodiesel is largely confined to the European Union, it has already captured seven per cent of the world’s output of vegetable oil. The European Commission admits that its target (10% of transport fuels by 2020) will raise world cereal prices by between 3 and 6%(8). Oxfam estimates that with every 1% increase in the price of food, another 16 million people go hungry.

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