A report leaked from inside the Joint Research Commission, the official scientific agency of Europe's lawmakers, warns just days before the EU plans to announce its new energy plan that the anticipated commitment to a minimum of 10% biofuels use in the transport sector may be a mistake. According to Frauke Thies, Greenpeace EU energy policy campaigner for renewable energies, who has seen the leaked report:
It shows that the 10% target for biofuels in transport could even undermine the overall EU target for renewable energy, since it forces the use of biomass in an inefficient way.
But if biofuels are a bad idea, where do we go from here?The Joint Research Commission report is not yet published, but presumbly it echoes concerns that improperly implemented biofuels targets could harm the global environment in the recently published Royal Society Report, Sustainable biofuels: prospects and challenges. The JRC report is further attributed with implying that goals for more secure fuel supply and for economic benefits such as job growth are also not guaranteed by the planned EU energy strategy.
Imagine the worst case scenario: developed nations, eager to do something about global warming, set minimum biofuels targets. Huge swaths of forest, relying also on land outside of those nations, are cleared to grow more crops. Petroleum-based fertilizers are required to grow the crops, and more fuels are needed to convert the crops to biofuel and transport them to the point of use. Subsidized biofuels producers can make a profit even with less efficient processing. By the time all these factors are thrown into the calculations, the biofuel tanked by Europeans barely saves a few percent of greenhouse emissions compared to using traditional fuels. And the forests are gone: with fewer trees to absorb CO2, the net effect is: worse global warming.
On top of that, social unrest grows, set off by rising food prices as crops are diverted for fuels, and by people having little say over how land is being used to serve the demands of other nations. Security of fuel supply is threatened.
So is there a way to manage biofuels correctly? As the Royal Society succinctly puts it:
There is a danger of policy forging ahead of the research and technology needed to achieve the outcomes proposed.
The European proposal to ban import of biofuels that do not deliver a "minimum level of greenhouse gas savings" begins to address this concern. Hidden in the USA President's energy bill signed in December 2007 is also a provision that bars the government from buying fuels made from nontraditional petroleum sources that generate more global warming pollution than conventional oil-based products. How these provisions would be implemented is vague.
Clearly, a system of certified lifecycle impact evaluation is needed. The evaluation basis must be narrow: factors like the type of land used, the growing aids, the fuel processing and the transport impacts must be consistent for each evaluation lot. Even the engine technology in which the fuel is combusted will influence the lifecycle balance. The science and the methodology for determining and communicating these impacts is not yet robust.
Furthermore, the processes for making biofuels must be optimized. Yes, this will take time. And yes, substitution targets provide markets to drive the research and development forward. An ideal biofuel, digested from non-food wastes like switchgrass, corn stalks and wood pulp, and efficiently processed to fuels is theoretically possible, and on the verge of the practical. Programs like the US DoE funding of pilot plants for biofuels processing are a step in the right direction. But like every plan that is started too late, we have lost some margins of safety. Every step we take must be accompanied by careful analysis. But the steps must be taken, without undue delay. So sharpen your pencils, we've got to win this one.