July Village Green Corner 2007
Are Biofuels the Solution?
Several decades ago Barbara Ward described the 20th century human as centaur-man - half man, half car. Car-loving manufacturers and politicians are desperately searching for ways to keep driving as the problems of congestion and greenhouse gas emissions from cars fills our news programmes. Biofuels is the latest 'solution'.
Petrol is made from oil, a fossil fuel which has been stored underground for thousands of years. To burn petrol in our cars means releasing that stored CO2 into the atmosphere.
Biofuels are made from plants. They are described as 'carbon neutral' as new plants are planted to replace them after they are harvested. Also the CO2 released when the biofuels are burned in our cars is only what the plants took in from the atmosphere while they were growing.
On a small scale growing crops for biofuels can be good. Making fuel from crop residues such as stalks is better. Making fuel from waste vegetable oil, for example from fish and chip shops such is even better.
HOWEVER, on a large scale biofuels are going to be disastrous . The EU is committed to 5% of the fuel for our cars being sourced from biofuels. Germany uses 12% of its cultivated land for biofuel crops to produce just 2% of its transport fuel. This means much of the biofuels will come from outside Europe . Indonesia has earmarked millions of hectares of tropical rainforest for destruction - to grow more palm oil for biodiesel sold in Europe . In poorer, low-energy societies, even a small amount of bioenergy from waste or intercropping, could make a real difference to people's lives - provided that they are able to use it for their benefit, not export it to the richer nations. To suggest that Asia and Africa should divert land away from growing food to growing fuel to keep cars running in the industrialised countries is unjust.
So, when you hear biofuels proposed as the answer to replace petrol in cars and planes, don't kid yourselves. There is no easy fix to this particular problem. A more sustainable 'solution' is to drive less, walk, cycle, take the bus and train whenever we can and use local shops. We can give lots of lifts to people and buy a smaller car next time. And most importantly avoid flying - but that's a subject for another Village Corner!