Saturday, January 14, 2012

Why biofuels are not a good idea

If you have always been thinking that biofuels are not a good idea, this book by Mario Giampietro and Kozo Mayumi will tell you exactly why.

Last year, I was engaged in a public debate on energy with a high level senior official of the Italian government - a "technocrat" if you like to use this term. When I expressed strong doubts about biofuels as a source of energy, his reaction was aggressive. He attacked me personally, hinting that I was on the payroll of the oil industry, since it is obvious that they don't like biofuels. He added that this fact was proven by the statements against biofuels issued by the Saudi ministry of petroleum. Besides, he said, speaking against biofuels is a way to prevent the poor of Brazil from reaping the goods that globalization will bring to them as soon as the biofuel world market of ethanol will be liberalized.(*)

Debates are always a learning experience, this one was no exception. One of the things I learned is that technocrats are just politicians who don't have to worry too much about their constituency. As politicians, their instinct in the debate is to go immediately for the personal attack; it is a strategy honed to perfection through thousands of years of political debate. My opponent applied it without worrying too much about the contradiction implied in accusing me of being on the payroll of the oil industry - think that I have spent the past ten years preaching the arrival of peak oil!

Another thing that I learned from that debate is how, by now, the biofuel industry has become so big that it is already politically incorrect to speak in public against biofuels. If you do that, you are bound to take plenty of flak; which is what happened to me. If you want to survive this kind of attacks, you must be very well prepared on the subject. For this purpose, you may find a lot of help in the recent book "The Biofuel Delusion" by Mario Giampietro and Kozo Mayumi. If you are unsure about why exactly biofuels are the disaster that they are, this book will explain to you that on the basis of a rigorous analysis and plenty of data. It is unfortunate (actually, it is a scandal) that it is so expensive; almost 70 dollars for a copy. But if you are engaged in the energy debate, it is a good investment.

Biofuels are a complex matter and Giampietro and Mayumi use almost 300 pages to eviscerate it in all its aspects. The main point of their analysis is based on fundamental physics: the efficiency of photosynthesis is low and the result is that the areas needed for cultivation are large. If we are thinking of amounts of biofuels comparable to the present needs for transportation, the task is simply unthinkable: there would be no space left for food production. As the authors flatly state at page 128 of the book, "Full substitution of fossil energy with agro-biofuels is impossible."

The large area needed is only one of the problems with biofuels. More in general, agriculture is a good technology for producing food, but it is terribly expensive in terms of the resources it requires. It needs land, water, fertilizers, pesticides, mechanical work; all supplies that normally come from fossil fuels. Taking all that into account, the EROEI (energy return for energy invested) of biofuels is generally low; unless the invested energy is supplied by low cost human labor, as it is the case for Brazilian sugar cane. Apart from Brazil, the need of an energy subsidy in the form of fossil fuels makes biofuels unable to deliver their promise of being a "sustainable" technology. They can't help us in reducing our dependency on fossil fuels nor in reducing the emission of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Of course, the biofuel story is more complex than that and Giampietro and Mayumi examine the whole spectrum of possibilities in their book. Are there better biofuels? Or, perhaps, ways of using the present form of biofuels in a more effective way? Yes, of course; there is the promise of "second generation" fuels (cellulosic ethanol) and the possibility of cultivating marginal areas, unsuitable for food production. But the physical factors of the problem don't change much and, right now, biofuels and conventional agriculture are already competing for land and resources. One of consequences may be the increase increase in food prices that we have been seen during the past few years.

In the end, what do we want to do, exactly, with biofuels? Do we really think that the way to solve our energy problems is to use an inefficient technology to support an already inefficient transportation system? The only explanation I can think of for so much emphasis on biofuels is that, once a bad idea is implemented, it starts to gain momentum and then it becomes nearly impossible to stop.

At this point, you may wonder how the debate with my technocratic opponent ended. Well, I was tempted to use his own tactics and accuse him to be on the payroll of the biofuel lobby. But I am not a politician and I didn't do that; also because I saw that it was not necessary. If you have some experience in speaking in public, you soon develop a sixth sense about what your audience thinks. In this case, it was clear to me: the audience was with me, not with my technocratic opponent. They just didn't buy the idea that biofuels can solve the world's fuel problem without starving anybody - to say nothing about the idea that globalization will make the Brazilian peasants rich. Did he sense that, too? I can't say. A few months later, he got an even higher level position in the new "technocratic" Monti government in Italy.

* By the way, the recent abolition of the government subsidies on corn ethanol in the US is probably a good thing, but it does not at all end the government support on biofuels, as you can read in this interesting article by Mike Sheldon on "The Oil Drum." Note, in particular, that the abolition of subsidies comes together with the abolition of the tariff on ethanol imports from Brazil and that could make ethanol cheaper than it was with subsidies! And it remains to be seen how that will affect the Brazilian peasants. 

See also: The Earthscan's page on "The Biofuel Delusion"
Mario Giampietro's page at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)