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Is biofuel really the answer for NZ?

23/02/2008

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As I understand it the government believes that biofuel will assist NZ to meet the ambitious carbon reduction targets that the current regime has set.

Now, whilst I understand that it is possible that some of the feedstock for biofuel in NZ may differ from that elsewhere it might be pertinent for our government and others to take account of what is happening elsewhere.

In a blog item at the Economist website the question is posed:

ARE WE living at a high point of support for biofuels, at least in Europe, as a means of tackling climate change?

The item’s author points out the ambitious nature of the targets and then says:

The agriculture lobby remains gung-ho for this target, part of the wider EU climate change package agreed with much fanfare last March. Whole swathes of central Europe are turning yellow, as farmers ramp up production of oilseed rape, with a view to selling to biodiesel manufacturers.

However, this is followed up with the following comment:

But the chorus of dissenting voices is not just growing, it is changing in nature. At first, the main opposition came from NGOs and environmental groups, worrying that biofuels were not as green as they were cracked up to be, and backed by a number of scientists. Then the scientific credentials of the doubters started to improve, with some serious journals publishing worrying findings about previously unsuspected indirect damage caused by planting biofuel crops on grasslands, or scrubby areas.

Last month, a leaked report by scientists from the European Commission’s own research body said there was it was impossible to say with any reasonable degree of certainty that biofuels actually saved on greenhouse gas emissions. The same month, a House of Commons committee in Britain came out against biofuels. Now, it emerges that the British government is launching a major review of biofuels, and whether they do any good. The review comes from the transport ministry, and the wording of its announcement makes pretty clear that the government is having second thoughts about the whole EU target.

According to the British government announcement:

“A number of new research papers have come out in recent weeks and months (including in particular a recent article in Science magazine “Use of US croplands for biofuels increases greenhouse gas emissions through emissions from land use change”) which suggest that the indirect impacts of biofuel production have not always been taken into account in earlier carbon saving calculations.”

Officially, the European Commission (under heavy pressure from farmer-friendly nations in the block), is still keen on the biofuels target. But leaders left themselves a get-out clause when they agreed the plan last year. The biofuels target kicks in only if environmentally sustainable biofuels are available.

The writer concludes by saying that:

Talking to an official about all this today, they made the good point that any big cut in the biofuel target would cause another, follow-on problem, because it would put the transport sector under pressure to find another way to cut greenhouse gas emissions. We have not heard the last of this.

Now I am not suggesting that the same situation necessarily obtains here, but I think it is pertinent to consider in respect of our headlong rush into trying to be planetary leaders in the area of GHG reduction/mitigation that regard be given to some of the issues and concerns that are beginning to emerge.

These are being raised not by so called sceptics or climate change deniers, but by those who are seeking ways in which targets can be achieved. Personally, I have for sometime been concerned that the benefits from the substitution of fossil fuels by biofuels may be illusory and have more to do with powerful farming lobbies in Europe and the USA and their desire to dine lavishly at the subsidy table. At the consumers expense. We are seeing the impact of this with the commodities boom in dairy, grain etc but at what price in the end?

I do not have an answer, but before we barrel off in a direction that may cause severe problems down the line for New Zealand, should we not expect our government to draw breath and think further about this issue?

After all it is not as if their record to date in this area is one of considered response and stellar performance.

2 Comments
  1. adamsmith1922 permalink*
    24/02/2008 15:40

    Andrew

    I agree.

    Not only that, large areas of prairie grass in the USA are being given over to biofuel crops, plus accelerating deforestation in Brazil.

    Nonsensically forest, needed to mitigate GHGs, is being destroyed to grow maize or other crops to make fuel. In addition the manufacturing process is not only energy inefficient, but it consumes large quantities of water.

    Given that fresh water is not in overall plentiful supply in the world, some commentators have written of the forthcoming water wars, this the biofuel route, seems a remarkably short sighted road to be going down.

    Hopefully sanity will prevail, but I have a nasty feeling that many are suffering from an advanced case of the ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ in the rush to be seen to be doing something, anything!

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  2. Andrew W permalink
    23/02/2008 22:49

    If you compare the efficiency of biofuels to solar cells in converting sunlight to useful energy, the biofuels efficiency is plain awful, there isn’t enough land area on the globe to supply both food and significant energy to the worlds population.

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