The Independent View: Fill your 4 x 4 with biofuel, or feed an African child for 200 days?

From time to time the solution to a problem ends up being worse than the original dilemma. Such is the case with making fuel from food crops – biofuels – in place of burning fossil fuels. What started off as such a well-intentioned idea to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has ended up not only doing the opposite, but also contributing to world food price rises and driving poor people off their land in developing countries and into hunger.

But as the tide turns against biofuels, there are sustainable alternatives which can take their place. And that’s where the Lib Dems can take a lead.  For many years, the idea that we can grow our own fuel for transport from existing resources, land and crops has been an extremely attractive one. It removes our dependency on dwindling reserves of polluting fossil fuels from unstable parts of the world and it must be better for the environment, right? After all plants are green, therefore the fuel they produce must be.

If only it that were the case. This year has been a dreadful one for harvests across the world – from droughts in the USA to floods at home. Global food prices have been pushed even higher, making eating an expensive but essential luxury for the world’s poorest people.

And what is making a bad situation worse are the damaging ethanol and biodiesel mandates that many governments around the world insist on.  Laws, like in Europe and the US, that require food crops to be diverted into fuel tanks instead of feeding people reduce grain and other staples even further, are pushing prices even higher and exacerbating an increasingly desperate situation. With 1 in 8 people going hungry globally, this is madness. That’s why we’re campaigning for the UK government to scrap its 5% target for petrol and diesel to come from biofuel.

Added to this are the associated problems of clearing the land to grow these crops. Cutting down existing vegetation, producing fertiliser chemically, furrowing the soil mechanically, diverting water to feed the crops and transporting the product to the factory make biofuels even more unfriendly to the environment. They’re less environmentally friendly than the fossil fuels they were designed to replace.

Then comes the added problem – the crops used to produce the fuel are not predominantly grown on spare land in rich countries such as the UK. They tend to be grown on former rainforest or farmland in developing countries. When you factor in the denial of people’s land rights, the removal of food crops from the local food supply and the increasing reliance of similarly unstable parts of the world to produce our fuel, biofuels begin to lose their magic sparkle.

The figures are horrendous. Even if we were to grow these crops here in the UK, we would need to give over about 70% of all the arable land in this country to produce fuel from food – all to fill the car with petrol for the weekly shop to spend an increasing fortune on food which needs to be brought in at ever greater cost from ever further afield. To fill one 4×4 tank with biodiesel uses the same amount of grain that would feed one child in Africa for two hundred days.

The good news is that this madness is increasingly obvious to the world. Earlier this week, France called for a global freeze in biofuels that interfere with food. And more significantly, the European Commission has now recognised that turning food to fuel is unacceptable and wants biofuel companies to invest in alternatives. While the EU finalises these changes, the UK should immediately freeze its food to fuel use at current use levels, rather than continuing on an upward trajectory.

The Liberal Democrats have a proud tradition of leading issues and being at the forefront of debates that others then spend years catching up on. This can be one such example. As the party develops its policy on the environment ahead of the next General Election, the party has a duty to ensure that its current and any potential coalition partners are led away from going down the biofuels path. This would be a popular move and a response to the spiralling food prices causing problems here and around the world.

Alternatives exist. The development of flawed technology can lead to better ones. More sustainable advanced biofuels can be made from genuine waste products such as food waste to biomethane; and electric vehicles powered by decarbonised and renewable electricity will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And the new proposal provides incentives for this transition to more sustainable alternatives to take place. But this needs to happen now. The party has a unique opportunity to help develop policy to deliver these alternatives.

It’s time for the LibDems to lead the country away from food for fuel.

The Independent View‘ is a slot on Lib Dem Voice which allows those from beyond the party to contribute to debates we believe are of interest to LDV’s readers. Please email [email protected] if you are interested in contributing.

* Jenny Ricks is Head of Campaigns at ActionAid UK. She leads their public campaigning and movement building in the UK. ActionAid works with the poorest communities in some 43 countries across the world.

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  • Great article. Let’s hope we’ll do take the lead and do the sensible thing…

  • Richard Dean 17th Oct '12 - 5:17pm

    Yes. But should we not also look back to see why this situation arose? After all, if the environmentalists messed up so badly before, why should we trust them not to mess up now?

    Put anothe way, history has shown that it’s NOT about an equivalence betweena 4×4 tank and feeding someone for 200 days. These problems and their proposed solutions occur in real worlds that are more complex than these kinds of slogans suggest.

    What happens after the 200 days? Isn’t it better to teach them to grow the food themselves. The n we get into colonialism etc … Or to make markets fairer?

  • “Biofuels … They’re less environmentally friendly than the fossil fuels they were designed to replace.”


    But what is government saying to power companies who are currently burning coal to make electricity? They are saying “You have three options. One, close down your power plant, and stop making any money from it. Or two, fit a lot of expensive equipment to control pollution by sulphur and nitrogen dioxide, while continuing to emit just as much carbon dioxide as before (!), and see if you can ever make enough money to pay for all the extra equipment. Or three, just keep running the plant as it is, as long as you burn biomass in place of the coal.”

    So – Government is offering generators financial incentives to replace coal with an alternative type of fuel which is claimed to be environmentally superior, but isn’t.

    It would be less bad for the environment, and a lot cheaper, to stick with coal in the short term.

    We could then invest the financial savings in future power sources which are genuinely better for the environment, such as wind and solar.

  • Jenny Ricks : You are spot on,100% correct, to point out the moral issue of using food that could be used to feed hungry people, and show the absurdity, of processing it into bio-fuel.
    What I do wish, is that more people understood why, it is also stupid, at the economic and thermodynamic level. If interested, please research EROEI, or Energy Returned On Energy Invested.
    The first commercial oil well was in 1859 in Pennsylvania. Colonel Edwin Drake was drilling and producing oil at an EROEI of about 100 : 1. In other words it took 1 barrel of oil (or its energy equivalent), to provide 100 barrels of oil ( An extremely good energy return ~ back then ).
    Today’s [2012], world supply of oil has an EROEI which averages, at about 18:1. Typically, Canadian tar sands are 3:1, North sea oil 11:1 Middle East oil comes in at about 24:1 ~ 32:1. As you can see, the energy return is a lot less that it was at the turn of the 20th Century? No doubt this goes towards explaining why filling your petrol tank is getting more and more expensive year on year?
    And getting back to bio fuels? the EROEI of bio fuels is about 1.25:1 ~ 1.6:1 So from a scientific (thermodynamic) perspective, the process is almost pointless. (Given that it takes one barrel of oil (or its energy equivalent), to produce one and a quarter (1.25), barrels of bio fuel). So it begs the question, why do they do it? [ i.e. process corn into bio fuel ]
    Convenience. The bulk of cars and trucks on the road today (99.5%), have engines that operate on ‘liquid’ fuel. So they would rather use (non liquid energy sources), natural gas, shale gas, coal, electricity and whatever else they can burn, to cook corn into a liquid form so they can power those gas guzzling 4×4’s, even though it is economically pointless, and thermodynamic insanity.
    Oh, and by the way. Our new energy sources that are being foisted upon us around the Lancashire area?, and go under the name of ‘fraking’, (Fractured Shale Gas). It has an EROEI of about 2.1:1 (so, not quite the energy bounty we are told it is? ).
    So yes, large scale bio fuel production, is deeply immoral. It is also neither green nor sustainable, and is just plain stupid.
    (Stupid, of course relates to its value to society, and not the companies who are heavily subsidised to produce it).

  • paul barker 17th Oct '12 - 8:55pm

    The 1st point is, unless you live in really wild country or work as a farmer, you shouldnt be driving a 4×4. If, like me, you live in a big city then you probably dont need a car at all.

    On the specifics about biofuel, the whole idea that keeping food prices down is a help to the very poor has been disproved by the experience of the last half-century. All it does is further impoverish small farmers, prevent development & distort politics as governments & voters become addicted to subsidies.

  • jenny barnes 17th Oct '12 - 9:26pm

    It takes rather a lot of energy to drive all our cars. And when it comes to 40 tonne trucks, I really don’t think batteries are going to do the job. Look at a motorway, and think how much energy is being burned over its entire length all the time.

  • > history has shown that it’s NOT about an equivalence betweena 4×4 tank and feeding someone for 200 days

    What the comparison does show, once you put aside the emotional use of “an african child” is just how much bio-mass is needed to produce sufficient fuel to run a single 4×4 and hence just how long it must of taken for these substantial reserves to have formed and that attempting to replicate this to produce the volumes of fuel we currently consume is pretty much pointless. Shale oil & gas are almost in the same league:

    “Resource estimates measure how much gas there is in the ground, while a reserve estimate applies to gas that is commercially recoverable.

    The last estimate by BGS [British Geological Survey] put UK onshore shale reserves at 5.3 trillion cubic feet (150 billion cubic metres), which would be enough to meet its gas consumption for one and a half years.”
    [ ]

  • I would be more inclined to listen to ActionAid when/if they stop talking so much garbage about tax. For all I know they may have a good point about biofuels but as soon as I see it’s ActionAid, I’m not inclined to read any further, they’ve lost all credibility with me after the nonsense they keep spouting on tax matters 🙁

  • I think it is worth mentioning that although this article speaks specifically about the morality and madness of bio fuel production, it rightly, opens the debate much wider than just ~ either feed my 4×4, or feed a child ~.
    Modern agriculture is dependent on fossil fuels, requiring roughly 10 calories of energy input, for every one calorie delivered to our plate. That is not sustainable.
    Those fossil fuels are finite. They [ fossil fuels ], will never completely run out, but they are getting harder to find, technically harder to extract, more costly to process and have increasingly less EROEI, as pointed out in an earlier comment.
    The oil that the world uses on a daily basis, is made up of Conventional oil and Unconventional oil. Conventional oil is the ‘Jed Clampett’ stuff that we imagine squirting from the top of an oil rig. Unconventional oil is derived from bio fuels, tar sands, shale oil, gas to liquids, coal to liquids. (dirty, wasteful and poor quality).
    As of today, the world uses approx 86 million barrels of oil PER DAY.
    This is made up of :
    Conventional Oil 73 million barrels per day. (approx)
    Unconventional Oil 13 million barrels per day. (approx)

    It is now pretty well established, that Conventional Oil production, peaked in 2006.
    So it follows, that if Conventional oil peaked in 2006, then it will, after a few years, begin to fall in production. So today, the world is at the decision stage. Do we lower our consumption of oil, or do we crank up the production of (dirty, wasteful, poor quality (and immoral?)), Unconventional oil sources, to fill the supply gap that is opening up in the years ahead?
    It’s a choice that we will have to make, and soon. (This issue also links into our economic growth problems, but I won’t expand on that here).
    And for those who think Solar, Wind and Wave power is the solution to the energy gap that looms, I can assure you that we will never, be driving fleets of 4×4’s and trucks down the motorway, on Renewables.

  • Dominic, I think you might be better rethinking your attitudes to tax first, and then take another look at sustainable (or otherwise) energy.

  • jenny barnes 18th Oct '12 - 5:13pm

    Concentrated solar production in deserts – North Africa, West Asia, Southern North America in particular – is capable of providing a total energy output of the same order of magnitude as our total energy consumption now. The bad news is that it costs more than all the alternatives per delivered kw – and there are both political stability and grid issues. Both are likely to be solved, but maybe not until major changes in geopolitical realities, for the first, and involving the migration of heavy energy sectors – aluminium smelting, cement, kerosene/diesel production, blast furnaces, etc to (in our case) the southern mediterranean coastal areas. Big changes. Biofuels are clearly not the way to go.

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