Uncharted Territory

July 5, 2010

Tantric Biofuel “Science”

Filed under: Biofuels, Complex decisions, Energy policy, Global warming, Reflections, Science — Tim Joslin @ 7:18 pm

The advocacy group, if it’s permissible to use the latest imported American argot to refer to a campaign against a policy programme, Food Not Fuel, have kindly emailed me a link to a Reuters Special Report, reporting that the EU may at last be having doubts about its biofuel policy.

The Special Report is so unnecessarily long-winded that it could in itself make a significant contribution to Europe meeting its renewable energy targets.  Here’s the main substantive point:

“The basic assumption with biofuels is that plants absorb as much carbon dioxide while growing as they release when burned in an engine. If you use them as a fuel, their net impact on the climate is close to zero, except for emissions from farming machinery and fertilizers. [Actually these can be very significant, but that’s not the main problem].

But this doesn’t take into account a relatively new concept that scientists drily call ‘indirect land use change’. Put simply, if you take a field planted with grain and switch that crop to something that can be used to make a biofuel, then somebody will go hungry unless the missing grain is grown elsewhere or farming yields are massively improved.

The rush to biofuels means the quantities of land needed are huge. Satisfying the EU’s demand alone will require an additional 4.5 million hectares of land by 2020, according to Reuters calculations based on an average of 15 of the studies for the Commission. That’s an area roughly equal to Denmark.

Burning forests to clear that land — which in theory could be found anywhere around the globe — would pump vast quantities of climate-warming emissions into the atmosphere, enough to cancel out many of the theoretical benefits the biofuels are supposed to bring in the first place. EU sources say an upcoming report will point to a one-off release of around 200 million metric tons of carbon due to land-use change from biofuels, paid back slowly as the fuels do their job over the following centuries. That one-off release is roughly the annual fossil fuel emissions of Germany.”   [My emphasis].

Well, exactamundo.

This is rather as I pointed out as long ago as 2007 when I started calculating carbon emission payback periods for biofuels in my essay Biofuels Are Not the Answer.

Clearly the establishment is rather slow on the uptake.

But it’s not just that the study of this and other supposedly complex scientific questions is tantric.  There’s a more fundamental problem.

Maybe it’s all an elaborate job creation scheme, but it is simply not necessary to produce “116 studies, data files and emails, amounting to thousands of pages” (and that’s just the stuff we know about) and have “a charged [email] discussion between those in the frontline of biofuels research on whether indirect land use change was already taking place before 2007”, as Reuters reports.

Indirect land use change (ILUC), as it’s now being called, is not science in the sense that you can measure it in the complex real world.  I know this may be an alien concept to policy-makers, but ILUC is a logical argument.  If you devote significant amounts of land to the production of biofuels, something has to give.  Either there will be less land available for food production than would otherwise be the case, or we will encroach further on the world’s remaining natural ecosystems and forested land than would otherwise be the case.

Reuters note that:

“…agriculture officials, backed by colleagues in the energy unit, have painted the new science as unrefined. ‘Trying to establish the amount of indirect land use change caused by EU biofuels production is simply ridiculous,’ wrote one, whose name was blacked out in the released documents.”

Obviously the officials, who I assume are biofuel proponents, have a point.  But the science is unrefined, not because it’s primitive, as they perhaps imply, but because it is inappropriate to try to refine it.  ILUC is not something that can easily be measured or predicted.  There’s too much going on.  Land productivity varies with technological change and the vagaries of our increasingly unstable climate.  Many factors affect consumption of agricultural products. These uncertainties must be addressed by the disclaimer “all else remaining equal” – they will happen whether we devote land to biofuel production or not.

At some point we need to listen to the common-sense argument.  Reuters end by reporting that:

“…the likelihood of a policy shift in Brussels has grown. After 20 years in German politics, Guenther Oettinger [Europe’s new Energy Commissioner] is the kind of man who loathes controversy and policy dysfunction. Many of the architects of the biofuels policy were replaced in an overhaul in January.

‘We promote only sustainable biofuels and take the phenomenon of indirect land use very seriously,’ he said in a written response to Reuters. ‘This is why we have launched several studies on this. If it is confirmed that indeed that there is a serious problem related to indirect land use, we may adapt our legislation.’ “

Guenther, you can commission as many studies as you want, the scientists are not going to be able to give you a bottom-line number on this one.  Eventually you’re going to have to make the call.


1 Comment »

  1. It is a good thing that America’s farmers have been producing more with less for a long time. As land has been gobbled up by roads and cities, American farmers continue to produce more and they will continue to produce enough for our food and fuel needs.

    Comment by Michael — July 6, 2010 @ 12:58 am

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