The biofuels controversy can only get hotter

Protests against growing crops to provide biofuels for vehicles are escalating as concerns grow over their sustainability and food prices rise. Land is the key, argues Nicholas Schoon

Several times more land is needed to feed a biofuel-powered car than is needed to feed a human being. And the global car population is rising more rapidly than the human population.

These stark facts may not be the main cause for opinion swinging violently against the development of a mass market in biofuels for road transport. But they are likely to form an ever-rising barrier in coming decades. For while the numbers of people and cars keep growing, when it comes to land Mark Twain’s dictum holds true: "They’re not making it anymore."

In recent weeks the pressure on the UK government and the European Commission for a fundamental rethink of plans to boost biofuels has mounted, more than a year after NGOs first voiced concerns (ENDS Report 386, p 15). A trio of top government scientific advisers - the chief scientist of the Environment Department (DEFRA), the government’s current chief scientist and his immediate predecessor - have all added to the chorus of disapproval, as has former Environment Minister Elliot Morley.

The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee has called for the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) - the main plank of the government’s biofuel expansion plans - to be suspended (ENDS Report 397, pp 55-57). The regime, which came into force on 15 April accompanied by a fanfare of NGO protests, compels petrol and diesel retailers to ensure that 2.5% of road fuels sold - more than three million litres of biofuel per day - are derived from plants rather than rock strata.

The minimum level increases to 5% by 2010. The effect will be to cut UK greenhouse gas emissions by a little less than half of 1%, if biofuels achieve the carbon savings claimed - and there is a big argument over whether they do.

Environmental and development NGOs are increasingly concerned and hostile, calling on the government to postpone the RTFO’s introduction. The only significant recent report which biofuels’ supporters can cheer is the Royal Society’s magnum opus, Sustainable Biofuels: prospects and challenges ( ENDS Report 396, pp 10-11). But its endorsement is qualified, calling for a shift in government policy to favour less environmentally harmful biofuels.

At the same time, resistance is mounting to the EU’s target for biofuels to make up 10% of member states’ road fuels by 2020 (ENDS Report 397, pp 48-50). This target has the proviso that biofuel production should be environmentally and socially ‘sustainable’ and that greener ‘second-generation’ biofuels could be on the market by then. But NGOs have criticised the proposed sustainability criteria and reliance on certification to show compliance.

In March leading engineer Professor Julia King’s big review of low-carbon cars, commissioned by the Treasury, said the EU’s target was too ambitious (ENDS Report 398, pp 45-46). And this month the European Environment Agency’s Scientific Committee called for it to be suspended pending a comprehensive study of the environmental risks and benefits. The 10% target was, said the scientists, "an experiment whose unintended effects are difficult to predict and difficult to control".

Global boom

The biofuels boom provoking this crescendo of protest is not confined to Europe. Twenty nations, at least one on every continent, have policies promoting the blending of biofuels into petrol or diesel (see figure 1), including subsidies estimated at €3.7 billion in 2006 in Europe alone.

In response the private sector has invested large sums in land and processing plant. Worldwide, 45 billion litres were produced for vehicles in 2006, according to one report.1These policies stem from a combination of circumstances two to three years ago. Rising energy prices intensified long-running concerns about over-dependence on Russian and Middle Eastern oil and gas. Pressure was on to cut rising greenhouse gas emissions from road vehicles, particularly in the EU. And there was a push to find alternative crops for developed-world farmers to help them and their governments get away from grain surpluses, subsidies and dumping cheap food on global markets. Europe’s ‘set-aside’ farmland was an obvious candidate for biofuel crops.

Biofuels also offered benefits for carmakers. One obvious way of cutting vehicle CO2 emissions is to make cars lighter and smaller with less powerful engines; but many drivers do not want that. Or radical changes in propulsion technology is needed to shift from the century-old dominance of internal combustion engines to petrol or diesel-electric hybrids or hydrogen-consuming fuel cells. But these shifts are expensive and technologically challenging. Biofuels, however, offer an easy get out: conventional cars can cut their CO2a little by running on petrol and diesel with a small proportion of plant-derived ethanol or biodiesel blended in.

In short, a couple of years ago there looked to be lots of winners from a biofuels boom: farmers, governments, carmakers, pioneering producer companies and the environment. The losers were the oil retailers, who were obliged to blend a little biofuel into their product, and drivers who would have to play a bit more for fuel. So why have biofuels become so controversial?

Land pressures
There are two big problems, both hinging on land use. First, if biofuels’s expanding acerage causes grassland to be ploughed up, swamps to be drained or forests to be cleared, then huge quantities of carbon locked up in soil and plants will be released.

The effect can be indirect, with the switching of arable land from food crops to biofuel feedstock, leading to grasslands and forests elsewhere going under the plough. A recent paper by University of Minnesota scientists in the journal Science estimates biofuel crops planted on virgin land would take 17 to 420 years to repay the carbon debt caused by the land conversion through year-on-year emissions savings (ENDS Report 397, p 26).

Even discounting the carbon releases from these ‘displacement effects’, the emission reductions achieved by biofuels were always going to be complex and compromised. These fuels require a lot of energy to produce, in growing the crops, fermenting and processing the harvest, distributing the fuel. If fossil coal, oil or gas supplies this energy it cuts into the emission savings. If nitrate fertilisers are spread on the land, yet more fossil fuel is consumed and nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas, is released to the atmosphere.

Several reports estimating biofuels’ overall CO2 savings compared with petrol and diesel have come up with proportions in the range of 25% to 85% for the bioethanol (which is blended with petrol) and biodiesel now on sale. Adding in initial release of CO2caused by land-use changes can wipe out these savings for years.

The second big problem is that biofuel crops will compete with food crops for land, even if they are the same crop. In a world in which agricultural trade is increasingly globalised, there is no way of avoiding this. Already, US bioethanol subsidies have pushed up world prices for maize (the main feedstock for US bioethanol producers), prompting protests in Mexico where maize is a staple food for poor people.

No system has been devised which prevents wealthy people seeking biofuels for their cars outbidding poor people seeking food for their families to survive. It is difficult to see how such a system could be devised in a world with free trade. If Europe devotes large areas of its arable land to biofuel crops - which is what current European Commission plans imply - it will have to import more food, which will tend to push up global prices.

And food prices have risen rapidly in recent years (see figure 2).

Biofuels are only part of the cause. Poor harvests, population growth and increasing wealth in rapidly industrialising countries such as China and India are bigger drivers. Loss of farmland to sprawling cities does not help. In these nations, rising incomes allow people to buy more meat and animal products. The extra livestock needed will require more land and grain than vegetarian diets.

Elementary economics tells us that if demand soars for crops it should call forth an increase in supply - either by bringing more land into use or by farming existing land more intensively.

But intensification brings a host of well-known environmental problems: soil compaction, dried out rivers, falling water tables, loss of wildlife, and water and air pollution caused by fertilisers, pesticides and livestock. As for bringing ‘unused’ land under the plough, there is the problem of huge carbon releases.

And there are other pressing social and environmental issues in using ‘unused’ land. The forests, swamps and grasslands may be rich in biodiversity and they provide other critical ‘ecosystem services’, such as water storage. The new plantations and fields invading the world’s semi-wildernesses could also displace indigenous peoples living off that land.

So biofuels now find themselves blended into one of the environmental movement’s oldest and biggest questions: "Is there enough land in the world to feed a growing human population?" With only 38% of the globe’s total surface devoted to crops and grazing, and with much of that land farmed in ways that are relatively unproductive and inefficient, the obvious answer would seem to be "yes, with plenty to spare".

But as the Earth’s population grows by 75 million each year, "yes" is gradually changing to "it depends". It depends on how much meat there is in diets. It depends on how much land we need to leave unused for nature, carbon storage and other ecosystem services. It depends on whether the investments and aid required to improve Third World farming and bring degraded farmland back into long-term use will ever be delivered. It depends on whether farming practices are environmentally sustainable. It will certainly depend on climate change.

And it is bound to depend, to some degree, on how much land is devoted to biofuels. Because cars need so much fuel compared with humans, their land take could be colossal (see table).

There are already 700 million cars in the world and their on-the-road population is growing by 15 million a year. Nations and regions with dense vehicle populations, such as the UK and Europe, do not have enough land to supply their own fleet. Even with only 10% of road fuel coming from biofuels they would rely on imports - currently most of those on sale in the UK are not home-grown. Meanwhile, in a world which appears to be running short of grain, the policy of setting aside Europe’s surplus farmland has been suspended (ENDS Report 393, pp 48-49).

Voluntary standards
The biofuels industry and its government promoters are struggling to respond to these concerns. The Department for Transport (DfT) is relying on voluntary standards to lift the ‘sustainability’ of biofuels, moving to mandatory standards by 2011 covering both imports and home-grown biofuels. The standards encompass biofuels’ life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions, their impacts on biodiversity and water resources, effects of land-use changes and conditions for workers growing the feedstock.

The UK was among the first to accept the need for environmental and social standards. The DfT’s recommendations on how fuel companies should report on CO2 savings and sustainability under the RTFO runs to some 250 pages.2The newly created Renewable Fuels Agency (RFA) is running the RTFO. It will issue the certificates which petrol and diesel suppliers must furnish to prove they are selling the required volumes of biofuels. It will also report on progress suppliers make towards more sustainable biofuels.

The RFA expects fuel companies to steadily increase their reporting so that by 2010 90% of biofuel sold in Britain is accompanied by the necessary "data reporting on its sustainability characteristics". And 80% of this fuel should achieve "a qualifying environmental standard". By 2010 the companies must show that the biofuels they sell reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% compared with the fossil fuels they replace; whether this will take into account ‘displacement effects’ is questionable.

But all three of these aims are just that - aims. They are not enforceable and depend on the cooperation of the oil companies under pressure - rather low pressure - from green-minded consumers (an opinion poll for Friends of the Earth in April found 89% of people were not even aware petrol and diesel now had to contain biofuel). There is, furthermore, no internationally accepted sustainable biofuels standard. So the government wants fuel suppliers to voluntarily apply other existing standards to their feedstocks. These include the LEAF Standard for UK farming, the criteria of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, the Basel Criteria for Responsible Soya Production and plantation standards recognised by the Forest Stewardship Council.

Ideally, there needs to be a credible global standard for sustainable biofuels by April 2011, when the UK government wants mandatory standards to apply to all biofuels covered by the RTFO. Standards are also being drawn up at EU level (see p 43) but early drafts have been weak to avoid breaching the World Trade Organization’s anti-trade barrier rules.

Indeed, it is difficult to see how any standard could address all of the land-use issues surrounding biofuels in our interconnected, free-trading world. If land used to grow food for humans becomes land growing food for cars, the effects ripple outwards - within countries and across oceans.

The biofuels may be grown in a sustainable way in one area, ticking all the right boxes, but far away forests may be cleared, grasslands ploughed up and clouds of CO2 released because they pushed up the demand for land. In February the DfT asked the RFA to review these displacement effects; its report is due this summer (ENDS Report 398, pp 49-50). In the meantime, DEFRA has just published a 300-page review of the literature on biofuels sustainability worldwide. It identifies land-use change as a critical threat, but says more research is needed.3

Second-generation biofuels
Biofuel’s proponents are fighting the rising tide of resistance with an argument which goes something like: "We can and will make biofuels good, but not just yet."

A decade or so in the future lie second-generation biofuels, which are inherently more sustainable than today’s first-generation ‘bad’ biofuels. These advanced fuels will be derived from cellulose and lignin in plants and their sugars, starch and oils. When that happens, farmland devoted to feeder crops will produce much more fuel per hectare and achieve far bigger savings in CO2emissions. Large quantities of biofuels will come from plant materials that are currently waste, or perhaps from marine algae. Feedstock crops will be genetically engineered to grow with little water and on land little suited to food crops.

This is the promised land, laid out in the Royal Society’s recent report. It is a world in which plants supply the dazzling variety of fuels and chemicals currently obtained from dwindling reserves of fossil oil. "Let us", argue the biofuel boosters, "create a demand for bad biofuels now to encourage the research, development and commercialisation of good, second generation biofuels".

But what happens if the world’s cars keep consuming more and more of the bad biofuels instead of switching to the good ones, doing increasing environmental damage while making food less and less affordable for the world’s poor? Would it not be better to have tougher policies from the outset, guaranteeing that biofuels come only from the most sustainable sources? That is what the NGOs and other critics are demanding as they argue for a suspension of the RTFO and the EU’s 10% target.

Technical hurdles
And there are other awkward questions. If anything more than low levels of biofuel are blended into conventional fuels, major changes will have to be made to car systems and the fuel distribution infrastructure. These technical obstacles are already challenging the EU’s 10% biofuels target and Germany’s biofuel ambitions.

So if the car and transport fuel industries require massive capital investment to accommodate serious market penetration by biofuels, are there not smarter, more cost-effective ways to invest money in greening cars? Such as making them radically more fuel efficient, or powered by fuel cells, or by developing alternatives to the car - better public transport, improved cycling facilities, teleconferencing and telecommuting.

But ultimately, it is land - the provider of so much of our food, biodiversity, carbon storage and ecosystem services - which will be the key constraint. If global food prices fall back, if farmers in developed nations suffer sharp or sustained declines in incomes, then demand for croplands will soften and transport biofuels will come back into favour. Right now, that looks a lousy bet. ?????

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