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.