Food for thought

Biofuels may not be a panacea for low-carbon transport.

I walked past the Brussels Atomium, the giant atom-shaped monument that defines the city. Silver balls suspended in the sky, linked by tubes. Built at the dawn of the nuclear age, when people thought nuclear power would solve all their problems. 

We all knew the story, but it was worth hearing again. Jose Maria Figueres Olsen, former President of Costa Rica and former chief executive officer of the World Economic Forum, started with an implicit reference to a depressing fact by the ex-president of Costa Rica: "We're all going to die. But that is why many, maybe, do not worry about the Greenland glaciers shedding into the Atlantic. All the self-sacrifices would be a lot of effort for no gain, since the gains benefit the next generation whereas you have to bear the cost." So he said: "You know when people built the cathedrals, they behaved as if they could see them completed in one generation, though it was the work of many generations. So is the fight against climate change."

There was mention of the hockey stick and peak oil. That this year Chinese car sales overtook Japanese ones and that by 2015 China would be buying more cars than America - and, even then, China would have to increase its car density fivefold to reach America's figure. By then, China, five times bigger, would be belching megatonnes of carbon.

Next was Marianne Fischer Boel, the European Commissioner for Agriculture, who said 20 per cent of greenhouse gases (GHG) came from transport and this was the only sector where CO2 emissions were growing. "Europe has to act together," she said, or there will just be a lot of fragmented efforts leading nowhere, she implied.

2020 plan

So the European Commission (EC) presented a legislative proposal in January that requires a 20 per cent cut in GHG, a 20 per cent cut in energy use, and 20 per cent use of renewables in Europe by 2020. The transport problem will be resolved through a greater commitment to biofuels.

Biofuels include biodiesel and bioethanol, made from rapeseed, palm oil and cooking oil; and beetroot, sugarcane and wheat respectively. The target is 10 per cent of transport fuel; rising to 35-40 per cent by 2030. China has a five-year plan. America also has an ambitious expansion plan. While Europe expects private industry to develop firms manufacturing biofuels, the US Department of Energy has given new firms big grants.

The prime advantage of biofuels is simple: they are renewable. Even global warming sceptics realise that oil is finite - global consumption is a cubic mile a year - and has so many other desirable high value uses.

Another benefit is enhanced energy security: independence from increasingly expensive oil sourced from the difficult Middle East. America is quite explicit about this, with a bill requiring a seven-fold increase in the use of biofuels by 2022 (the Energy Independence and Security Act).

Biofuels offer reductions in GHG, not in tail pipe emissions, which are the same as for petrol. When making a life cycle assessment of carbon usage if you factor in the CO2 absorption of fuels based on corn, rapeseed, sugarcane, etc, this clearly reduces their net carbon contribution. You also have to factor in the CO2 used in production (fertilisers, transport, manufacture), but even so, according to studies used by the EC, rapeseed offers GHG emission reductions of 50 per cent, halfway between Brazilian sugarcane's 90 per cent and American corn's 15 per cent. As Fischer Boel said: "Biofuels are a vital element in our tool box to combat climate change."


But it is not as simple as just telling Europe's under-employed farmers to start tilling their set asides with biofuel crops. There are problems with sequencing - getting investors, plants, transport infrastructure, fuel stations, car manufacturers, and, then, above all, customers to accept new fuels.

It is early days, but only one country in Europe has so far taken to bioethanol cars in any quantities - Sweden. But even with tax breaks, congestion charge exemptions and a cash grant, flexifuel vehicles (which can take petrol and/or ethanol) still only make up 15 per cent of new car sales. The Swedish government mandates petrol stations to have ethanol pumps; so 2,000 do. In France the figure is 180. In the UK it is about 20. 

If pump unavailability, ethanol's newness, and its allegedly corrosive properties were its only problems, the EC's selling job would have been hard enough, but it is also handicapped by a seeming inability to push innovations such as GM crops through. But biofuels' problems are bigger than that.

There have been clashes between demonstrators and security officers at conferences. While demonstrators have been pinning placards to conference centres, frustrated young entrepreneurs and biotech executives have been reduced to talking querulously into their mobile phones. They have been let in eventually, but only after being handed leaflets that said that biofuels were for 'biofools'. 

This is not just a view found on the ecological left. An OECD working group report from September 2007 said the anticipated twenty-fold amount of energy being extracted annually from land between now and 2050 and growing populations (nine billion in 2050) will limit the amount of new land that can be brought into production leading to a 'food-versus-fuel' debate. This would push starving people into cutting down the rainforests to grow crops, either for cash
or food. Biofuels big claim was that they were good for the environment, but such impacts as soil acidification, fertiliser use, biodiversity loss and toxicity of agricultural pesticides suggest "the overall environmental impacts can very easily exceed those of petrol and mineral diesel".

For good measure, the EC's in-house science advice unit leaked a paper that the policy will be exceedingly costly and will neither lead to substantial GHG savings nor to job creation. Science, the world's leading science journal, goes further than the OECD report, saying that analysis, which the EC based its policy suggestions on, failed to count the carbon emissions that occurred as farmers responded to higher prices and converted forest and grasslands to croplands. The study found that corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20 per cent saving, nearly doubled GHG over 30 years and increased them over 167 years.

A UN report, 'Last Stand of the Orangutan', said that, combined with logging and fire pressures, palm oil production could result in the destruction of 98 per cent of Indonesia's rainforest within 12 years. Jean Ziegler, the UN special rapporteur on food, calls biofuels a "crime against humanity".

Second generation

One of the interesting things about biofuels is that the number of patents has increased by 150 per cent in each of the past two years, and now has more patents issued, over 1,000 a year, than solar and wind combined.

It seems most of these patent-holders are travelling around Europe and the world flush with the $1bn in biofuels research and development projects the US department of energy is granting to make second generation biofuels. There is a sense of ferment in the industry, as it were, for new ways to make chiefly ethanol. There is a score of experimental facilities in the US and Europe.

One of the main areas of research concerns turning cellulose from grasses, bagasse (the residue from sugarcane) sawdust, wood chip, straw, even municipal waste, into ethanol. (It is somewhat alarming to start to see every plant and tree around as just a source of energy. Whither Wordsworth?)

Their fertiliser and production carbon debts have already been paid by their primary products; so they are the greenest of all ethanols, and they do not dual role as potential food crops. But the treatment process is more complex: the lignine sheaths protecting the cellulose have to be separated out through applications of acid; then hydrolysed with the help of genetically engineered enzymes. They have then reached the state of beetroot or sugarcane sugar. These simple sugars can be fermented by yeasts to alcohols in the usual way, before being distilled into usable bioethanol.

What enzymes?

The plethora of wood-digesting proteins residing in termites' guts have been extensively studied to try and shed light on the bugs' wood-eating capacity to suggest cheaper, more effective ways of generating cellulosic ethanol. But there are many, many other routes being studied.

One recent analysis said that no single breakthrough was likely to bring us to the point of efficient biofuel production. Rather, it will probably take many advances on several scientific and technological fronts, underlining the importance of a systems approach. And economics would determine the winner, no mater what plants get built in the short-term.

Land use dilemma

What the EC and the US have done is commit themselves to a controversial course of action, and only time will tell whether second generation biofuels will make a difference.

The EC has to convince not only the public, but heads of government. At the annual European Union spring competitiveness summit in March, Angela Merkel made public her anxiety about carbon leakage, which industry would migrate to where environmental conditions are laxer.

The steel industry, which will be subject to carbon cap and trade policies that form the other centre plank of the EC's new environment policy, has complained that its cost will rise by 10 per cent under the new legislation.

It is a battle set to continue to rage versus hostile NGOs (Non-Government Organisations) and journalists and an indifferent, confused public. Perhaps it is a battle that will take in other issues; for these promises to be the question of the century. Once you start talking about crops and land-use - if land use is what NGOs worry about - why not grazing for cattle?

For instance, one delegate at a meeting I was at recently noted that most arable land is in fact not used by biocrops but livestock for grazing; in calorie terms, that land would be better used for growing crops, eaten directly by people.

Shortly after that we all drifted off into the most sumptuous of banquets, where many splendid meat dishes were served and plenty of ethanol of the superior kind served, perhaps to dull various ironies. 

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