27 July 2009: Biofuels should be reserved for aviation

All low carbon options must be pursued to control climate change. However, that means all options that are genuinely low carbon, not all those that claim to be low carbon. Most of the biofuels that are produced and used today are worse for the climate than oil (see Biofuels), and are promoted by the American and European governments for political rather than climate reasons. The exception is Brazilian ethanol made from sugar cane. This was also originally promoted for energy security reasons, but is less climate-damaging than oil.

‘Second generation’ biofuels (from wood, food waste or energy crops such as switchgrass) should be developed, but are not yet commercially available. And even energy crops that are grown in climate-friendly ways without using artificial pesticides or fertilisers will have the indirect effect of forcing food to be grown on other land often leading to deforestation. Therefore, biofuels should be used for essential aviation – necessary work travel or visiting family.

A report from the influential UK think tank, Policy Exchange, published last week (see publication entitled Green Skies Thinking) recommends this. It calls for a compulsory EU mandate on the proportion of jet fuel derived from, or blended with, sustainable bio-jet fuel, rising from 20% in 2020 to 80% in 2050. In fact, aeroplanes have flown on biofuels, without problem. This will not mean that flying can continue at today’s excessive levels, since there isn’t enough land to grow enough biofuels and feed the growing world population. However, not all flying is unnecessary.

For the same land use and food reasons, and because the US and European biofuels are so bad for the climate, surface transport should run on electricity. The US and EU must stop supporting and subsidising ethanol from corn and biodiesel from rapeseed or soy. And the money saved in this way should be spent on genuine renewables.

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