There has been a lot in the news recently about biofuels. The UK government, as part of their Climate Change Action plan, want to see up to 5% biofuel mixes as mandatory by 2010. This will, they say, reduce our CO2 emissions from the transport sector.
Quite rightly, the Secretary of State for Transport, Douglas Alexander, in a speech to an IPPR audience, cautioned that the biofuels must come from a sustainable source. But is there a sustainable source? And can we, let alone the world, provide a 5-10% biofuel crop in a way that is sustainable?
Already the price of corn has shot up in the US, due to the new push for ethanol. This has led to food riots in Mexico where people can not afford the higher price for their maize. George Monbiot called last week for an immediate moratorium on biofuels until more research is carried out. He warns that biofuels are a recipe for a humanitarian and environmental disaster.
And even the oil companies are saying that we can not meet targets to bring 5% biofuel to the UK forecourts without endangering wildlife.
So are biofuels a magic bullet to reduce our carbon footprint? Consider this:
* The grain required to fill the petrol tank of a Range Rover with ethanol is sufficient to feed one person per year. Assuming the petrol tank is refilled every two weeks, the amount of grain required would feed a hungry African village for a year
* Much of the fuel that Europeans use will be imported from Brazil, where the Amazon is being burned to plant more sugar and soybeans, and Southeast Asia, where oil palm plantations are destroying the rainforest habitat of orangutans and many other species. Species are dying for our driving
*The expansion of biofuels would increase monoculture farming
*If ethanol is imported from the US, it will likely come from maize, which uses fossil fuels at every stage in the production process, from cultivation using fertilisers and tractors to processing and transportation. Growing maize appears to use 30% more energy than the finished fuel produces, and leaves eroded soils and polluted waters behind
* Meeting the 5.75% target would require, according to one authoritative study, a quarter of the EU's arable land
* Using ethanol rather than petrol reduces total emissions of carbon dioxide by only about 13% because of the pollution caused by the production process, and because ethanol gets only about 70% of the mileage of petrol
* Food prices are already increasing. With just 10% of the world's sugar harvest being converted to ethanol, the price of sugar has doubled; the price of palm oil has increased 15% over the past year, with a further 25% gain expected next year.