Supposed Benefits Of Biofuels Are A Dangerous Illusion

Guardian columnist George Monbiot had a few things to say about biofuels recently, none of them complimentary. His latest opinion piece starts this way: “Modern biofuels are touted as a boon for the climate. But, used on a large scale, they are no more sustainable than whale oil.” Has he got your attention yet? Here’s more.

“There’s nothing complicated about the effects of turning crops into biofuels. If food is used to power cars or generate electricity or heat homes, either it must be snatched from human mouths, or ecosystems must be snatched from the planet’s surface, as arable lands expand to accommodate the extra demand. But governments and the industries that they favour obscure this obvious truth. They distract and confuse us about an evidently false solution to climate breakdown.

“From inception, the incentives and rules promoting biofuels on both sides of the Atlantic had little to do with saving the planet and everything to do with political expediency. Angela Merkel pushed for an EU biofuels mandate as a means of avoiding stronger fuel economy standards for German motor manufacturers. In the US, they have long been used to prop up the price of grain and provide farmers with a guaranteed market. That’s why the Biden administration, as the midterm elections loom, remains committed to this cruelty.”

Biofuels & Food Production

“Europe burns over 17,000 tonnes of rapeseed and sunflower oil every day,” reads Transport Environment. “The equivalent of 19 million bottles. This has contributed to spiraling food price rises as well as empty supermarket shelves in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.” T&E is calling on governments to prioritize food over fuel and end the use of biofuels made from food crops.

A new report by Green Alliance shows that the food used by the UK alone for biofuels could feed 3.5 million people. If biofuel production ceased worldwide, the amount of crops saved could feed 1.9 billion human beings. “The only consistent and reliable outcome of this technology is hunger,” Monbiot says. He adds,

“Biofuel markets also provide a major incentive for land grabbing from small farmers and indigenous people. Since 2000, 10m hectares of Africa’s land, often the best land, has been bought or seized by sovereign wealth funds, corporations and private investors. They replace food production for local people with “flex crops.”

“Commodities such as soya and maize that can be switched between markets for food, animal feed or biofuel, depending on which prices are strongest. Land grabbing is a major cause of destitution and hunger. As biofuels raise demand for land, rain forests, marshes and savanahs in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil and Africa are cleared. There’s a limit to how much we can eat. There’s no limit to how much we can burn.”

Biodiesel Is Worse Than Diesel

All the major crop sources of biodiesel have a higher climate impact than the fossil fuels they replace,” Monbiot reports. He says rapeseed oil causes 1.2 times as much global heating, soy oil twice as much, and palm oil three times as much. The same goes for ethanol made from wheat. Yet this consideration hasn’t stopped the reopening of a bio-ethanol plant in Hull in response to government incentives. It will gobble up the wheat grown on 130,000 hectares (320,000 acres) of land.

“Whenever a new biofuel market is launched, we are told it will run on waste. A recent example is BP’s claim that planes will be fueled by “sustainable feedstocks such as used cooking oil and household waste”. Invariably, as soon as the market develops, dedicated crops are grown to supply it. Already, all the waste that can realistically be extracted is being used, yet it accounts for just 17% of the EU’s biodiesel and scarcely any bioethanol. Even these figures, according to an industry whistleblower who contacted me, are stretched. Waste palm oil, thanks to the demand for “green” biodiesel, can be more valuable than new oil, so fresh supplies are allegedly slipped into the waste stream.

“Far from heeding the concerns, however, last year the UK government, “responding to industry feedback,” increased its target for the amount of biofuel used in surface transport. Worse, it justifies continued airport expansion with the claim that planes will soon be able to use “sustainable” fuels. In practice this means biofuel, as no other “sustainable” source is likely to power mass air travel in the medium term. But there is no means of flying more than a tiny number of planes on this fuel that does not involve both global starvation and ecological catastrophe (emphasis added).”

The Biogas Scam

Back in 2017, we called Dale Vince, founder of Ecotricity, a clean energy rock star. Monbiot would disagree. He says the company has a plan to turn 6.4 million hectares — over one quarter of the UK’s land area — into growing feedstocks for biogas plants. “Vince has made the astonishing claim that ‘it’s a plan with no downsides,” but as critics have been trying to point out to him, this scheme would incur enormous ecological, carbon, and food opportunity costs.

“In other words, the land could either be used for growing food or, if it ceased to be used for food production, would draw down more carbon and harbor more wildlife if it were rewilded. Biogas production has also triggered severe pollution events caused by spreading the residue back on to the land or by leaks and ruptures. It’s the worst land use proposal I’ve ever seen in the UK (emphasis added).

When challenged, Vince told Monbiot, “We’re not the big bad corporate. We’re environmentalists that get things done, and often enough when we start something new we upset the settled view of things.” Sounds like several tech startup leaders we know who think the secret to success is to run around and break things.

The Takeaway

Monbiot’s final words on the subject of biofuels are powerful. “We can’t use such fixes to solve our climate crisis. To leave fossil fuels in the ground, we should change our energy system — our need to travel, our modes of transport, the fuel economy of our homes, and the means by which we heat them. Modern biofuels, used at scale, are no more sustainable than an older variety — whale oil. And burning food is the definition of decadence (emphasis added).”

Keep in mind the words of Darren Woods, CEO of Exxon, who told CNBC recently about his plan to transition his company to biofuels in order to continue doing business in the future. Either Monbiot is a crackpot or Woods is dangerously delusional. You are free to make up your own mind about that.



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