Food for thought

17th September 2012


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  • Transport ,
  • Procurement ,
  • Renewable ,
  • Generation

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IEMA

Paul Suff questions whether policymakers might want to rethink their devotion to biofuels

Should plants be grown to power cars or aircraft as a way of tackling climate change? For many policymakers the answer is a resounding yes. EU member states are required to raise the share of biofuels in the transport energy mix to 10% by 2020, while fuel from biomass to be blended into transport fuel in the US must reach 36 billion gallons by 2022.

Transport contributes around one-quarter of EU emissions each year – making it the second biggest greenhouse-gas (GHG) emitting sector after energy. Reducing the GHG intensity of transport fuels is, therefore, seen as a no-brainer.

Whether the burning of biofuels in internal combustion engines will help much in curtailing rising global temperatures is debatable, however. Scientists at the European Environment Agency reported in 2011 that the ability of bioenergy to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere, compared with fossil fuels, is dependent on where and how the biomass is produced and harvested.

“Legislation that encourages substitution of fossil fuels by bioenergy, irrespective of the biomass source, may even result in increased CO2 emissions – thereby accelerating global warming,” they concluded.

The drought across the US “corn belt” has highlighted other potential drawbacks: food shortages and higher prices. Some 40% of US corn output is targeted for biofuel, even though the drought will see yields this year plummet.

Higher food prices fuelled partly by land given over to grow crops for biofuel will mean more people will go hungry. And with demand for biofuel from two of the world’s largest economies rising, more and more land is being converted to grow biofuel crops.

A recent study claims that land acquisitions to grow biofuel feedstocks account for almost 60% of all large-scale land deals over the past decade, mainly in Africa and Asia. And, the World Bank warned in 2010 that such “land grabs” can pose social and environmental risks if not well managed.

So perhaps the answer to the original question is not quite so straightforward. It may be time for EU and US policymakers to make a U-turn.

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