Change Alley

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Biofuel

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Tonight at 6 p.m. outside Downing Street, there’s a demonstration against the mandatory addition of biofuel to all fuel sold in the UK. From today, April 15th (“April Biofools Day”), the Renewable Transport Fuels Obligation (RTFO) demands that all forecourts will be required by law to sell only fuel which is blended with 2.5% biofuel. Action groups such as Biofuelwatch denounce this as a Very Bad Thing, leading to food shortages and monoculture cultivation of crops specifically for fuel. The conventional wisdom is that biofuels can and will only be created from food crops, grown on agricultural land, or on destroyed rainforest, which is even worse. Green guru George Monbiot, in an article in today’s Guardian, has this to say:

“From this morning all sellers of transport fuel in the United Kingdom will be obliged to mix it with ethanol or biodiesel made from crops.”

Which is not true. The RTFO does not specify how the biofuel to be added should be made, only that it should be obtained from a renewable source. Now, in the short term it may well be that the Obligation will be met by using biofuel or bioethanol from crops. There are market distortion problems caused by heavily-subsidised corn-derived fuel from the US, for example. Oil companies are reporting that they will not be able to supply bioethanol in any quantity before next year at the earliest. However, in the medium to long-term, crop-based biofuels are likely to be displaced by other technologies processing other sources, such as algae, food waste, wood and other non-crop cellulosic biomass. (“Sobering Up from Ethanol Inebriation”, Energy & Capital)

There’s widespread ignorance on these issues. The ‘Man on the Clapham Omnibus’ is oblivious to the distinction between biofuel, biomass, biodiesel and bioethanol, and uses the terms interchangeably if he talks about these things at all. That’s fine, if he can rely on experts in the field to get it right. But when a writer of George Monbiot’s stature gets it wrong, what hope do we have? Whether it’s a genuine mistake or deliberate journalistic sleight of hand, it’s disappointing to say the least.

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Written by Pete Smith

April 15, 2008 at 3:57 pm

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