Wednesday, February 13, 2008

A new generation of biofuels turns out to be another environmental disaster

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 12th February 2008

Now they might start sitting up. They wouldn't listen to the
environmentalists or even the geologists. Can governments ignore the

A report published last week by Citibank, and so far unremarked by the
media, proposes "genuine difficulties" in increasing the production of
crude oil, "particularly after 2012."(1) Though 175 big drilling
projects will start in the next four years, "the fear remains that
most of this supply will be offset by high levels of decline". The oil
industry has scoffed at the notion that oil supplies might peak, but
"recent evidence of failed production growth would tend to shift the
burden of proof onto the producers", as they have been unable to
respond to the massive rise in prices. "Total global liquid
hydrocarbon production has essentially flatlined since mid 2005 at
just north of 85 million barrels per day."

The issue is complicated, as ever, by the refusal of the OPEC cartel
to raise production. What has changed, Citi says, is that the non-OPEC
countries can no longer answer the price signal. Does this mean that
oil production in these nations has already peaked? If so, what do our
governments intend to do?

Nine months ago, I asked the British government to send me its
assessments of global oil supply. The results astonished me: there
weren't any(2). Instead it relied exclusively on one external source:
a book published by the International Energy Agency. The omission
became stranger still when I read this book and discovered that it was
a crude polemic, dismissing those who questioned future oil supplies
as "doomsayers" without providing robust evidence to support its
conclusions(3). Though the members of OPEC have a powerful interest in
exaggerating their reserves in order to boost their quotas, the IEA
relied on their own assessments of future supply.

Last week I tried again, and I received the same response: "the
Government agrees with IEA analysis that global oil (and gas) reserves
are sufficient to sustain economic growth for the foreseeable
future."(4) Perhaps it hasn't noticed that the IEA is now
backtracking. The Financial Times says the agency "has admitted that
it has been paying insufficient attention to supply bottlenecks as
evidence mounts that oil is being discovered more slowly than once
expected … natural decline rates for discovered fields are a closely
guarded secret in the oil industry, and the IEA is concerned that the
data it currently holds is not accurate."(5) What if the data turns
out to be wrong? What if OPEC's stated reserves are a pack of lies?
What contingency plans has the government made? Answer comes there

The European Commission, by contrast, does have a plan, and it's a
disaster. It recognises that "the oil dependence of the transport
sector … is one of the most serious problems of insecurity in energy
supply that the EU faces"(6). Partly in order to diversify fuel
supplies, partly to cut greenhouse gas emissions, it has ordered the
member states to ensure that by 2020 10% of the petroleum our cars
burn must be replaced with biofuels. This won't solve peak oil, but it
might at least put it into perspective by causing an even bigger

To be fair to the Commission, it has now acknowledged that biofuels
are not a green panacea. Its draft directive rules that they shouldn't
be produced by destroying primary forests, ancient grasslands or
wetlands, as this could cause a net increase in greenhouse gas
emissions. Nor should any biodiverse ecosystem be damaged in order to
grow them(7).

It sounds good, but there are three problems. If biofuels can't be
produced in virgin habitats, they must be confined to existing
agricultural land, which means that every time we fill up the car we
snatch food from people's mouths. This, in turn, raises the price of
food, which encourages farmers to destroy pristine habitats - primary
forests, ancient grasslands, wetlands and the rest - in order to grow
it. We can congratulate ourselves on remaining morally pure, but the
impacts are the same. There is no way out of this: on a finite planet
with tight food supplies you either compete with the hungry or clear
new land.

The third problem is that the Commission's methodology has just been
blown apart by two new papers. Published in Science magazine, they
calculate the total carbon costs of biofuel production(8,9). When land
clearance (caused either directly or by the displacement of food
crops) is taken into account, all the major biofuels cause a massive
increase in emissions.

Even the most productive source - sugarcane grown in the scrubby
savannahs of central Brazil - creates a carbon debt which takes 17
years to repay. As the major carbon reductions must be made now, the
net effect of this crop is to exacerbate climate change. The worst
source - palm oil displacing tropical rainforest growing in peat -
invokes a carbon debt of some 840 years. Even when you produce ethanol
from maize grown on "rested" arable land (which in the EU is called
set-aside and in the US is called conservation reserve), it takes 48
years to repay the carbon debt. The facts have changed. Will the
policy follow?

Many people believe there's a way of avoiding these problems: by
making biofuels not from the crops themselves but from crop wastes. If
transport fuel can be manufactured from straw or grass or wood chips,
there are no implications for land use, and no danger of spreading
hunger. Until recently I believed this myself(10).

Unfortunately most agricultural "waste" is nothing of the kind. It is
the organic material which maintains the soil's structure, nutrients
and store of carbon. A paper commissioned by the US government
proposes that, to help meet its biofuel targets, 75% of annual crop
residues should be harvested(11). According to a letter published in
Science last year, removing crop residues can increase the rate of
soil erosion 100-fold(12). Our addiction to the car, in other words,
could lead to peak soil as well as peak oil(13).

Removing crop wastes means replacing the nutrients they contain with
fertiliser, which causes further greenhouse gas emissions. A recent
paper by the Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen suggests that emissions of
nitrous oxide (a greenhouse gas 296 times more powerful than CO2) from
nitrogen fertilisers wipe out all the carbon savings biofuels produce,
even before you take the changes in land use into account(14). Growing
special second generation crops, such as trees or switchgrass, doesn't
solve the problem either: like other energy crops, they displace both
food production and carbon emissions. Growing switchgrass, one of the
new papers in Science shows, creates a carbon debt of 52 years(15).
Some people propose making second generation fuels from grass
harvested in natural meadows or from municipal waste, but it's hard
enough to produce them from single feedstocks; far harder to
manufacture them from a mixture. Apart from used chip fat, there is no
such thing as a sustainable biofuel.

All these convoluted solutions are designed to avoid a simpler one:
reducing the consumption of transport fuel. But that requires the use
of a different commodity. Global supplies of political courage appear,
unfortunately, to have peaked some time ago.


1. Citi, 4th February 2008. Industry Focus: Oil Companies - International.

2. See

3. International Energy Agency, 2005. Resources to Reserves: Oil & Gas
Technologies for the Energy Markets of the Future. Available
electronically at:

4. Email from the Energy Desk, Department for Business, Enterprise and
Regulatory Reform, 8th February 2008.

5. Dino Mahtani, 26th December 2007. Oil watchdog reworks reserves
forecasts. The Financial Times.

6. Commission of the European Communities, 23rd January 2008.
Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council
on the promotion of the use of energy from renewable sources, p8.

7. Commission of the European Communities, 23rd January 2008.
Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council
on the promotion of the use of energy from renewable sources, Article

8. Joseph Fargione, Jason Hill, David Tilman, Stephen Polasky, Peter
Hawthorne, 7th February 2008. Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon
Debt. Science. Doi 10.1126/science.1152747.

9. Timothy Searchinger, Ralph Heimlich, R. A. Houghton, Fengxia Dong,
Amani Elobeid, Jacinto Fabiosa, Simla Tokgoz, Dermot Hayes, Tun-Hsiang
Yu, 7th February 2008. Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases
Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land Use Change . Science. Doi

10. I am grateful to Jim Thomas from the ETC Group for putting me right.

11. US Department of Energy and US department of Agriculture, April
2005. Biomass as Feedstock for a Bioenergy and Bioproducts Industry:
the Technical Feasibility of a Billion-Ton Annual Supply.

12. David Pimentel and Rattan Lal, 17th August 2007. Letter: Biofuels
and the Environment. Science.

13. This term has been used by Alice Friedemann, 10th April 2007. Peak
Soil: Why cellulosic ethanol, biofuels are unsustainable and a threat
to America.

14. PJ Crutzen, AR Mosier, KA Smith and W Winiwarter, 1 August 2007.
N2O release from agro-biofuel production negates global warming
reduction by replacing fossil fuels. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics
Discussions 7, pp11191–11205.

15. Joseph Fargione et al, ibid.

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