Biofuels: the choice between petrol and beefburgers

13th January 2012 by

When I was little I used to know a man who ran a car on used vegetable oil. As a 10 year old this fascinated me- it was beyond my wildest imagination that you can make a car go on skanky old oil scrounged from the chippy.

As the monumental reality settled in that the world would one day run out of oil (cue childish fantasies of a post-apocalyptic society where we would all have to cook our pet cats over bonfires made from old furniture because we couldn’t drive to the shop) I began to think that making oil out of vegetables was the best idea since Lego. My brother and I spent many an evening poring over maps, plotting our route to Timbuktu via as many chip shops as possible, once we’d converted the family car to guzzle vegetables.

In hindsight, I now realise that it’s not possible to fuel the worlds estimated 800 million cars on old vegetable oil alone – NOBODY could eat that many chips. Luckily, some smart people in the energy industry came up with idea of growing plants such as corn or sugarcane, specially to turn into bioethanol fuel through fermentation.

On paper this seems like an excellent idea- we can avert an energy crisis (no more burning the antique coffee table out of desperation) using a sustainable fuel supply which is a lot less damaging to the climate than fossil fuels. Infact, it was such a good idea that over 2.7% of all road transport now uses biofuel to keep the world’s wheels going.

However, biofuels are marred by controversy, becoming an example used by the environmental movement of a misguided policy used by governments to greenwash ‘business as normal’.

The biggest problem biofuels present is that they compete for land usually used for growing food. In a world where human populations are hurtling towards 7 billion and with almost 1 billion are in constant hunger, we really need to critically examine which is more important- well fed people or well oiled motors?

There have been many vehement reports of the effects of biofuels on world hunger. Numerous articles state biofuel production as a major factor in the 07/08 global food crisis, in which increased competition for agricultural land pushed up prices way above the means of many resulting in global riots, political instability and starvation. One leaked World Bank report implies that the US and UK government targets on increasing biofuel use has pushed world food prices up by 75%, pushing 100m people below the poverty line.

So should we write biofuels off as a very bad idea? According to Zero Carbon Britain, a future energy strategy designed by the Centre for Alternative Technology, biofuels have their rightful place in a sustainable energy plan. In fact, they go so far to suggest that 1.67 million hectares (about 7% of UK’s total land area, including urban and mountainous areas) should be dedicated to transport biofuel.

When I first heard this I was couldn’t help thinking they were a tad misguided. But actually what the Zero Carbon Britain report advocates is the sensible use of land. UK agriculture currently takes up about 16 million hectares of land, of which 11 hectares is dedicated to livestock and another 5 million to livestock feed. Arable crops are notoriously more efficient at feeding humans than livestock, so by reducing the nation’s meat consumption and switching to a arable based diet, more land would be freed up for fuel production. Also, a new form of 2nd generation biofuels are being produced, which can grow on more degraded land that isn’t prime arable land.

'I'd rather be a vegetable'

I know that the idea that biofuels might have a place in our zero carbon future is slightly controversial – indeed I’ve received an interesting (!) reaction by suggesting it in our office. There are a litany of arguments that instead we should stop relying on energy for transport altogether. But the debate about land use is an interesting one and really needs to be thought about carefully if we want to really fairly share the resources that the planet can provide for a sustainable future. But faced with the choice what would you choose – petrol or meat?

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