Biofuel folly

April 14, 2008 3:32 PM

The Government must be feeling pretty hard done by this morning.  They kowtowed to the green movement when they were pushing for more use of biofuels.  Now that the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO), which requires all car fuels to include at least 2.5 per cent biofuel - rising to 5 per cent by 2010, is coming into existence they are attacking it on Sky News.


Their new position is rather more sensible.  Biofuels aren't very efficient - a Cornell University study found that many biofuels take more energy to produce than they produce in a car's engine.  Even when relatively efficient biofuels are used they don't add a lot to carbon efficiency.  The simple caculation offered on the Department of Transport website that 1.25 per cent of road transport emissions will be saved rising to 2.5 when the full obligation comes into force per cent is a bit suspect.  It depends on a lot of assumptions about the type of fuel used and may not capture all the energy used in the production of biofuels (this problem has afflicted many studies).  Even if the Department of Transport estimate is right the amount of carbon saved is tiny - 0.7-0.8 million tonnes of carbon.  That is just over a day of Chinese emissions growth (XLS) between 2005 and 2006.


Beyond that, bio-fuels push up food prices.  This has two nasty consequences in particular:


  1. People go hungry and there is social unrest.  New problems, particularly in Haiti, are reported in the Telegraph.

  2. There is more pressure to put wilderness environments to the plough.

All these problems are caused by inexperienced politicians who weren't able to understand how weak the arguments in support of biofuels were.  So weak that even the green movement has now given up on them.

The Government must be feeling pretty hard done by this morning.  They kowtowed to the green movement when they were pushing for more use of biofuels.  Now that the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO), which requires all car fuels to include at least 2.5 per cent biofuel - rising to 5 per cent by 2010, is coming into existence they are attacking it on Sky News.


Their new position is rather more sensible.  Biofuels aren't very efficient - a Cornell University study found that many biofuels take more energy to produce than they produce in a car's engine.  Even when relatively efficient biofuels are used they don't add a lot to carbon efficiency.  The simple caculation offered on the Department of Transport website that 1.25 per cent of road transport emissions will be saved rising to 2.5 when the full obligation comes into force per cent is a bit suspect.  It depends on a lot of assumptions about the type of fuel used and may not capture all the energy used in the production of biofuels (this problem has afflicted many studies).  Even if the Department of Transport estimate is right the amount of carbon saved is tiny - 0.7-0.8 million tonnes of carbon.  That is just over a day of Chinese emissions growth (XLS) between 2005 and 2006.


Beyond that, bio-fuels push up food prices.  This has two nasty consequences in particular:


  1. People go hungry and there is social unrest.  New problems, particularly in Haiti, are reported in the Telegraph.

  2. There is more pressure to put wilderness environments to the plough.

All these problems are caused by inexperienced politicians who weren't able to understand how weak the arguments in support of biofuels were.  So weak that even the green movement has now given up on them.

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