Thursday, 6 December 2007

Biofuels - a solution worse than the problem?

Biofuels - a solution worse than the problem?

By Fred Pearce
Last Updated: 2:01pm GMT 05/12/2007

Are biofuels turning into the Frankenstein's monster of climate change? Will this apparently clever solution to the fossil fuel problem end up being worse that the original problem? I fear so.

The check list of problems raised by the current boom in growing corn and palm oil, sugar cane and rape seed, for biofuels is growing impressively long.It turns out that growing corn in the American Midwest takes about as much energy - for making fertilisers and processing the crop - as is saved by replacing petrol on the forecourt. And there is worse.

I was on the Indonesian island of Sumatra a couple of weeks ago, watching them drain peat bogs and clear rainforest so they can grow more palm oil for us to burn in our car engines.

Trashing rainforests is bad enough. But peat bogs are the accumulated, unrotted remains of thousands of years of forest growth. Draining them causes all that concentrated carbon to oxidise, releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the air.

Bog boffins I spoke to - like Jack Rieley at the University of Nottingham - say the drained bogs will release 30 times more carbon dioxide than will ever be recouped by burning the palm oil back in Europe.

This is madness. Sheer madness. It is also a perverse incentive created by the Kyoto Protocol, which measures the emissions cuts from car engines in Europe, but not the bog emissions in Indonesia.

Another big problem is that growing biofuels takes a lot of land and huge amounts of water, neither of which the world has to spare.

I just got my hands on a detailed mapping study by forestry expert Sten Nilsson of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria. His unpublished findings show that most of the land that countries want to convert to biofuels is already earmarked for conservation or forestry or, mainly, agriculture.

And researchers at the International Water Management Institute in Sri Lanka warned recently that China and India risk famine if they proceed with their biofuels plans, because they don't have enough water to grow both fuel and food.

The same body estimates that replacing a quarter of the world's fossil fuels with biofuels would double global demand for irrigation water. At a time when climate change will escalate water shortages.

Already, biofuels are starting to crowd out food crops, and raise food prices, according to a report in the last few days from the International Food Policy Research Institute in New York. And recently the European Union suspended all set-asides for 2008, so we can grow more biofuels like rape - sounding a death knell for some native birds.

Now I still like biofuels - in moderation. There is wasteland out in the tropics where palm oil can be safely grown. And closer to home we can turn all sorts of farm, forestry and household waste into fuel that will genuinely help the climate.

Let's make use of that used chip fat and straw and woodland clippings. And memo to greens: You should be in favour of waste incinerators, if they are hooked up to the power plants.

But planting the world with biofuels and sucking the rivers dry to keep our tanks topped up? That way starvation and madness lie. And it might not even prevent global warming.