TOPIC GUIDE: Biofuels
"Governments should stop supporting the biofuels industry"
PUBLISHED: 27 Jan 2012
AUTHOR: Tim Black
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Over the past decade, increasing the production of biofuels [Ref: New Internationalist] - in the main, liquid fuels made from crops such as corn, sugarcane and rapeseed - has become something of a priority for governments in the West. The reason seems clear enough. Biofuels hold out the promise of an environmentally friendly and plentiful supply of energy that would diminish Western reliance on oil. So, in the absence of willing private investors [Ref: ClickGreen], successive governments in Europe [Ref: BBC News] and the US [Ref: BusinessGreen] have both set targets for increased biofuel use and handed out significant subsidies [Ref: DECC] to biofuel producers in an attempt to meet those targets. The effects have been dramatic. In the US alone ethanol production from corn crops increased from 1.6 billion gallons in 2000 to 13.6 billion gallons in 2010. But in recent years, political support for biofuels has come under attack [Ref: BBC News] from a variety of quarters. Environmentalists, for instance, claim that biofuels are not as green as it was originally claimed [Ref: Guardian] and, in some instances, emit more CO2 than fossil fuels [Ref: Telegraph]. Elsewhere, the political and financial support for the biofuel industry has been blamed for the global food price crisis [Ref: Guardian]. Instead of trying to increase energy production, the critics of biofuels conclude, Western governments should be focusing on decreasing energy consumption.
DEBATE IN CONTEXT
This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.
The environmental credentials of biofuels have long been championed. The idea is simple enough: although the burning of biofuel releases CO2, the growing of the crops for the biofuel will absorb a comparable amount of CO2. As the Observer reported in 2006, ‘There is no overall addition to atmospheric levels of the gas… it is merely recycled’ [Ref: Guardian]. The contrast with fossil fuels is striking: ‘petrol and diesel are pumped from reservoirs laid down millions of years ago. Burning them adds to atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.’ An International Energy Agency report from earlier this year was similarly enthusiastic: ‘the projected use of biofuels could avoid around 2.1 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions per year when produced sustainably’ [Ref: Yahoo]. Little wonder that after a successful biofuelled test flight by a British plane, aviation minister Theresa Villiers was moved to declare: ‘The government believes that sustainable biofuels have a role to play in efforts to tackle climate change, particularly in sectors where no other viable low carbon energy source has been identified - as is the case with aviation.’[Ref: Daily Mail]. For its critics, however, biofuels are far from being the saviour of the planet. Some such as the World Wildlife Fund’s Jason Clay are concerned by the threat to biodiversity posed by the mass growing of single crops, be they palm, rape, or corn [Ref: Guardian]. Others point out that the total CO2 emissions involved in clearing, harvesting, processing and transporting biofuels not only negate the putative environmental benefits of biofuels, they end up making them more harmful to the environment than fossil fuels. In Brazil, for instance, the demand for biofuels has given rise to large-scale deforestation [Ref: Time]. But the most prominent current criticism of biofuels’ environmental credibility has been what the Scientific Committee of the European Environment Agency recently described as a ‘serious environmental accountancy error’: that is, there is no reduction in CO2 emissions if the land on which a biofuel crop is planted was already being used to grow food crops [Ref: Reuters]. The EU energy commission, for one, has countered such accusations by asserting that ‘We believe it’s better to use biofuels than petrol, because biofuels emit much less carbon dioxide’.
Fuel versus food
By far the most pointed criticism of governmental support for biofuels, however, has centred on the extent to which US and European governments, by encouraging farmers to grow crops for fuel instead of food, have helped create a global food crisis. The Global Hunger Index was certainly in no doubt and blamed the heavily subsidised US corn-for-ethanol industry for the rising food prices of the last few years [Ref: Guardian]. In Slate magazine, Bjorn Lomborg substantiated this argument, noting that noting that 6.5 per cent of global grain output and 8 per cent of vegetable oil had been used as biofuels in 2010 [Ref: Slate]. As Mark Lynas put it in the New Statesman, ‘What biofuels do is undeniable: they take food out of the mouths of starving people and divert them to be burned as fuel in the car engines of the world’s rich consumers.’ [Ref: New Statesman]. But others argue that the biofuel industry is being made a scapegoat for increased food prices and subsequent food shortages. In spiked, for instance, Rob Lyons writes that blaming biofuel production for the food crisis means that ‘important factors will go unaddressed’ [Ref: spiked]. These factors include the vast and equally subsidised ‘retirement’ of land from agricultural production in the US and Europe during the 1980s and 1990s due to overproduction, and, as Lewis Smith records in The Times, the hardship and inefficiency of much food production in the rest of the world, from ‘grossly inefficient Thai paddy fields’ to ‘Indian irrigation systems… in need of massive investment’ [Ref: The Times]. As two scientists argue in Nature magazine, it is not biofuel production that is the problem, but inefficient food production. The answer, they contend, is to raise agricultural productivity, not blame the biofuel industry: ‘Most parts of Africa have plenty of land that could be productive while under-development fuels hunger’. In fact, they continue, biofuel production could provide those living in less developed regions of the world both with a purpose for land unsuited to food production, and a potential means of economic growth [Ref: SciDev].
A waste of time, money and energy?
While biofuels have certainly been embroiled in controversy over the past few years, technological progress continues to be made. Alongside a test flight carried out by Thomson airlines, Air China has also flown its first biofuelled flight. Towards the end of 2011, it was reported that the aviation industry is closer to using biofuel routinely [Ref: New York Times]. Moreover, there is much talk of second-generation non-ethanol, non-food-based biofuels, so much so that the Economist reported ‘Biofuels are back and this time they might even work’ [Ref: Economist]. Certainly, faith in the potential of biofuels is such that US President Barack Obama’s ‘energy vision’, in which second generation biofuels are to be funded, was praised by the New York Times for potentially freeing the US from its dependence on energy imports [Ref: New York Times]. In the form of biofuels, nation states previously reliant on energy supplies from volatile regions of the world can achieve a degree of energy security, argue its supporters. Yet criticisms of biofuel as an actual energy source persist. The aviation successes are dismissed as unsustainable PR stunts [Ref: Epoch Times]. Compared to that to which it poses as an alternative, namely, petrol, biofuels remain hopelessly inefficient [Ref: Guardian]. Others note that to produce biofuel in sufficient quantities would result in ‘most of the arable surface of the planet being deployed to produce food for cars, not people’ [Ref: Guardian]. And to those who talk of the potential of second generation biofuels, a columnist in the Financial Times responds scathingly: ‘The industry’s bluff that [burning food crops] merely serves as a bridge to second-generation biofuels should finally be called: non-food alternatives are perpetually “a few years away”.’ [Ref: FT ].Some advocates of biofuels counter that the problem is expectation: biofuels should not be seen as a silver bullet for either climate change or energy security. Instead, they call for continued government support on the basis, as Graham Meeks puts it in the New Statesman, that although biofuels can only play a ‘modest’ role in our meeting energy needs, that is ‘no reason not to pursue it’ [Ref: New Statesman]. Instead of dismissing biofuels as problem, is not it not possible to see them potentially providing part of the solution to our energy needs? To those calling for the continued support of biofuels, the possibility of continuing to meet people’s energy needs remains central. But for those opposed to the biofuel industry, governments in the West would be better off finding ways to encourage their citizens not to consume so much.
It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.
Danny Chivers New Internationalist 1 July 2011
New York Times 17 June 2011
BBC 24 January 2007
Charlie Dunmore Reuters 16 September 2011
Financial Times 12 June 2011
Bjorn Lomborg Slate 10 March 2011
Jeremy Warner Telegraph 27 October 2010
George Monbiot Guardian 23 November 2004
Sonia Kolesnikov New York Times 25 October 2011
Warren Mabee and Donald L Smith Star 16 October 2011
Lee R Lynd and Jeremy Woods Nature 28 June 2011
Yahoo News 21 April 2011
Robin McKie and Ned Temko Observer 17 September 2006
Javier Bias Financial Times 28 June 2011
Martin Robbins Nature 23 June 2011
Economist 28 October 2010
Mark Lynas New Statesman 17 April 2008
Rob Lyons spiked 15 April 2008
Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.
Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.
Larry Bell Forbes 8 November 2011
ClickGreen 1 October 2011
The White House 16 August 2011
Le Lynd and Jeremy Woods Nature 23 June 2011
Wall Street Journal 14 June 2011
Henry Miller Guardian 12 May 2011
New York Times 31 March 2011
Guardian 3 August 2010
Lord Browne The Times 20 October 2008
David Gow Guardian 10 September 2008
Leo Lewis The Times 4 June 2008
Michael Grunwald Time 27 March 2008
Elisabeth Rosenthal New York Times 8 February 2008
Graham Meeks New Statesman 2 July 2007
Peter Kendall BBC News 5 October 2006
Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.
IN THE NEWS
Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.
Guardian 8 November 2011
Farmers' Guardian 25 October 2011
Daily Mail 7 October 2011
Reuters 16 June 2011
Daily Telegraph 22 March 2011
BBC News 12 February 2011
New Scientist 11 November 2010
Reuters 20 September 2010
Reuters 27 May 2010
New York Times 4 February 2010
Daily Telegraph 6 December 2009
BBC News 27 January 2009
Daily Telegraph 7 July 2008
Los Angeles Times 5 June 2008
BBC News 15 April 2008
New York Times 23 January 2007
CBS News 10 January 2007
Business Car 6 December 2006
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