Biofuels and global warming

The bbc site today carried news that provides hope that the issues surrounding the use of biofuels to combat global warming are being addresed by European legislators.

The pros and cons of biofuels raise extremely complex issues. Without the time, the inclination nor the obligation to wade through the mass of calculations that are needed to reach a definitive opinion on whether biofuels can make any meaningful contribution to the fight against anthropogenic climate change I am reluctant to express an opinion.

If the scientific jury in general is still out on the issue it is only because they haven’t yet been told what the charges are. If anyone were to be asked to cast a verdict on whether biofuels alone can make a serious contribution to reducing global carbon emissions the issue would be much more quickly resolved. The photosynthetic process is simply not efficient enough to provide a meaningful proportion of our modern global economy’s energy needs. There are much better ways of turning sunlight into energy than growing plants and then burning them.

However the global issue is clouded by local concerns. There are potential winners from biofuels and their interests should of course be considered when weighing the issues. Biofuels can play a very positive role in recycling waste and giving value to forest products. If the correct checks and balances are put in place there may be a place for biofuels in our future energy balance. However to automatically label biofuels as green altenatives while so many legitimate questions have been raised would be irresponsible. There are serious concerns not only regarding  the net carbon balance involved in their production, but also the multiple undesirable side effects in terms of global food security, land use change and biodiversity loss.

A much broader issue is involved here that was touched on in a previous post. The IPCC scenarios that provide hope that carbon emissions  will be below the critical threshold all involve global rather than local action. When issues such as biofuels are under discussion it is important to evaluate how seriously the extent of future global warming is being taken. If an argument has not considered the wider system of global feedbacks doubts must be expressed. Turning food into fuel in one part of the world cannot fail to influence the behaviour of farmers in another part of the world. If behaviour change threatens forests it is clearly difficult for anyone involved in conservation and rural development to express support for the policy.


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