The Dangers of Biofuel

The Guardian have published a column by George Monbiot, on the dangers of bio-fuel. Although this won't be a popular view-point, Monbiot believes that the majority of biofuel production is more harmful to the environment than petroleum production. His argument; there's nothing wrong with the theory, but the practice has gone very wrong indeed. His answer is to halt production until more efficient production is available on a large scale.

Biofuels are desirable because the plants from which it is create store carbon as they grow. Therefore the carbon released during its use is offset, it will be reabsorbed by the new plants being grown for fuel. However, there are other factors that need to be taken into account, which can cause biofuel to seem like a less desirable option. There is no simple solution; developing countries are gaining increasing political power from their crops, but at the same time they are losing out ecologically.

One problem is that the demand for fuel crops is raising prices, making them less affordable as a food source. According to Monbiot, in some cases grain now costs double what it did just one year ago, and stock piles are low. Fuel manufacturers can afford these higher prices, and if this continues then there is a very real possibility that it could create a very real food shortage.Another issue is that virgin land is being stripped for planting as demand for these crops grows. Sugarcane producers are moving into the Brazillian cerrado, soya farmers into the Amazon rainforest and palm oil plantations into the Malaysian rainforest. Often, these areas are burned clear before planting, which releases more carbon than will be saved in many years of producing biofuels.

There is nothing inherently wrong with biofuel, if produced properly. However, current manufacturing is often the cause of food shortages, loss of wildlife habitat, huge carbon emissions and population displacement. There are exceptions, but they seem to be in the minority. If the process cannot be improved, then would we be better to rely on petroleum?

Monbiot suggests a five year freeze on the sale of bio-fuels in order to allow research. However, with last weeks UK budget imposing fines for manufacturers who don't embrace biofuel, and a growing demand in the developed world, this seems unlikely.