It’s hard to think of any issue whose image has changed as fast as biofuels. Barely a year ago, they were being lauded as the great green hope: a source of fuel that doesn’t depend on accidents of geology, promising cheaper, high-quality fuel which doesn’t contribute to carbon emissions. But their dependence on purpose-grown crops has led to pressures on land use which, according to no less an authority than the World Bank, is the main reason for rocketing food prices around the world. Biofuels have gone from hero to villain.
Amid worries over food shortages and the destruction of huge tracts of rain forest to grow fuel crops, governments have begun backing away from their earlier enthusiasm for biofuels. The European Union is about to vote on whether to scrap its commitment to source 10 per cent of transport fuel from biofuels by 2010. In the UK, the government is digesting a report from the Renewable Fuels Agency which predicts that current policy will push grain prices in the EU up by 15 per cent, sugar by 7 per cent and oilseed by 50 per cent; the government is now considering amending its own targets. And in global terms, World Bank president Robert Zoellick has urged the G8 leaders to rethink the tariffs, tax breaks and subsidies that are fuelling the growth of biofuel crops.
It all smacks of business and legislation running ahead of science and technology. Many of the developers of biofuel technology have insisted that first-generation biofuels — using plant oils as a raw material for a diesel-like fuel — could only ever have been a stepping-stone to wider exploitation of biofuels. Even five years ago, the message from the engineers was that the true potential lay in second-generation biofuels, derived from breaking down cellulose, which could be obtained from the by-products of food production — rice husks, wheat straw, corn stalks and sugar cane.
Further research is being carried out on using algae to produce oils that can be turned into diesel — often referred to as third-generation, but actually another form of first-generation. This, it’s claimed, would ease pressure on agricultural land even further, as the algae could be grown at high density in ponds or bioreactors. They could even be used to capture carbon dioxide, although it’s moot whether this would reduce greenhouse gas emissions. If you feed algae with CO2 from a power station, then use the algae to make fuel, which you then burn, surely you’re just delaying the emission of the gas, rather than locking it away?
These concerns aside, it seems premature to announce the death of biofuels. Clearly there’s a great deal of potential in the technology — as long as policy makers take careful note of the state of the technology and consider all its implications. But it’s important that the whole concept of biofuels doesn’t become tainted with the badge of environmental bogey-man. That could lead to funding cuts for the research that could ease concerns over land competition and food prices, and that wouldn’t be to anyone’s advantage.
Stuart NathanSpecial Projects Editor