January 15, 2008 | Graham

Biofuels – told you so!

I predicted 18 months ago that biofuels were problematic and would have negligible impact on greenhouse gasses at the same time leading to starvation. I didn’t touch on land degradation in the post, so the European Union’s ahead of me there, even though it’s taken them so long to catch-up with the obvious.
While having trouble admitting it (they are maintaining biofuel targets although they will be happy to miss them), biofuels look like they are on the way out. Greenpeace reports on the basis of a radio interview to which they link that the EU is backing off its enthusiasm for biofuels because they may make negligible contributions to decreasing greenhouse gases, lead to starvation in the third world, and degrade land. This has no doubt been bolstered by a recent Royal Society report, and an article in Science by Jörn Scharlemann and William Laurance of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama.
Of course, biofuels which do not compete with food crops and which do not grow on land used by food crops might still make a useful contribution. It’s just that we are nowhere near producing biofuels with these qualifications. Biodiesel from algae grown in saline water, or ethanol derived from cellulose both have potential, but much weaker lobbies. Most of the biodiesel hype has been from existing producers of food crops looking for alternative markets for produce they are already growing, not competitors.

Posted by Graham at 5:04 pm | Comments (3) |
Filed under: Environment


  1. It was interesting to see, on a recent road-trip back in FNQ, the amount of ethanol-related propaganda on roadside billboards etc. The Australian sugar industry are still running pretty hard on this. You’d expect them too because it’s probably their last, best hope of survival. I’d much rather pay a subsidy through taxation to investigate the possibility for sugar farmers to grow alternative crops – the markets for tropical fruits etc. are just starting. But in essence you’re right about ethanol – deriving it from existing crops is a non-starter.

    Comment by Jason — January 15, 2008 @ 5:39 pm

  2. I think the price of sugar is likely to be pushed up by ethanol, whether or not we’re producing any domestically. Sugar trades on an international market. Biggest problem for Australian sugar producers is subsidies paid to produce cane and beet sugar in the US and Europe.
    At a rough guess it is probably better to derive it from sugar than grains as I suspect a larger percentage of the sugar cane plant is used in the process than grain. But in terms of available solar energy available from either, it’s probably much more energy efficient to put a solar array on your roof and run your car on electricity.
    I guess someone’s done some figures on this somewhere on the ‘net. I’ll see what I can find.

    Comment by Graham Young — January 20, 2008 @ 12:05 am

  3. This post http://fatknowledge.blogspot.com/2006/03/sugar-cane-vs-solar-panels.html claims that solar cells are somewhere around 50 times more efficient at capturing solar energy than sugar cane.
    His sums look reasonable, although I didn’t research his assumptions, so as long as the capital cost of solar cells isn’t 50 times higher than planting an equivalent amount of sugar cane, then solar cells and electric vehicles look like a winner.

    Comment by Graham Young — January 20, 2008 @ 12:12 am

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