Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Monday, February 4, 2019

The Biodiesel Disaster: Why bad Ideas are Always so Successful?

This is a modified version of an article that was published on "Il Fatto Quotidiano" in Italian on Jan 31, 2019

Behind the simian mask, there is yours truly, Ugo Bardi, sitting at his desk.  The sign is in Italian, but you can understand that it is against biodiesel and in favor of Orangutans. 

Sometimes it happens that you are asked a question that forces you to reflect. So, a few days ago, I was at a public meeting on energy and climate and I was telling about the work we do at the university and with the Club of Rome. In the debate, someone asked me: "But, professor, from all these models of the world you make, after all, what did you learne?".

Some questions are not easy when the topic is complex and you have to summarize the answer in a few sentences. And you have to come up with something right away! But I think I could put together a good answer when I said, "The main thing we've learned is that the models work well. Even the famous model of 'The Limits to Growth' that the Club of Rome had proposed in 1972 still describes reasonably correctly the state of the world today. But this has a consequence: the system is predictable because it tends to move in a certain direction. And this means that changing things is very difficult ".

The problem of the difficulty of changing things, even when it would be necessary, came back to me by later on, when reading a recent report on biodiesel. This stuff is really terrible: it causes deforestation and destruction of the fertile soil. In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, it is much worse than traditional diesel fuel.

But, you could say, at least biodiesel replaces a non-renewable fuel obtained from oil. In practice, the problem is that we are not getting very far with the replacement. Making the appropriate calculations, we find that, today the production of biodiesel is about 2.7% by volume of the total production of diesel (the details of the calculation are at the end of this post). Considering that biodiesel contains less energy than diesel fuel, it is just over 2% of the total. And for this miserable 2% we destroyed forests all over the world and massacred untold numbers of orangutans?

Maybe you do not care about orangutans or ancient forests, you just want fuel for your diesel SUV. And you could tell me, couldn't biodiesel production be increased? The problem is that there are not many forests left to be razed in the world. To produce more biodiesel we should start using land that is currently used for food production. This means starving people to feed the cars: and we risk to get to that for real if we continue with current trends.

But how is it that we put ourselves in this absurd situation? The beauty is that the idea was to make an "ecological" fuel. Ecological my xxxx! But it is what I was saying before. The system (and the system is us) tends to maintain its trajectory. When we realize that there is a problem, in this case, the lack of diesel fuel (peak diesel), as well as global warming, we launch ourselves towards the solution that seems to keep things as they are. By replacing diesel oil with biodiesel, it seemed to be possible to fix everything with no change or with just minimal change. We use a renewable fuel and we keep our stoves on wheels running. But it doesn't work like that. We only created a lot of damage without getting anything useful.

What we should have done, and we are still in time to do, is to move from the noisy and inefficient internal combustion engines to vehicles that use electric motors powered by renewable energy, much more efficient and non-polluting for real. Of course, this requires making investments, changing habits. Thus, the knee-jerk reaction of so many people when the idea is proposed is "I do not want to change anything, give me biodiesel so that I keep my diesel car". It is understandable, but we are in an emergency situation both for the climate and for the availability of fuels. And change we must.

h/t Virna Quintini  and Veronica Aneris


It is curious that nobody on the Web seems to have bothered to do the calculation of how much biodiesel is actually produced in comparison with fossil diesel. I tried to find the data and the result is a bewildering mess of different units, claims, and counterclaims. Of course, if you are a good conspiracy theorist, you would suspect that the people producing biodiesel don't want to make it easy for us to understand how minuscule is their contribution to the world's fuel production. But, eventually, I could put together a calculation that seems to be correct and that Antonio Turiel kindly checked and validate. And, yes, the contribution of biodiesel to the world's diesel consumption is minuscule. So, let's go with the numbers. gives 1577 Kboe of biofuels (the people who use these weird units should be killed by a lightning strike coming from God herself). I think it means one million and a half barrel of oil equivalent per day. And then, it is reasonable to say that biodiesel could be a fraction of that, as you say, ca 0.65 million barrels per day. That makes 237 million barrels per year. One barrel is 42 gallons, indeed we have some 10 billion gallons per year, a datum which corresponds to one provided by the biodiesel journal. Again, these people he should be struck by lightning for using these units. So far, so good.

Then, back to IEA, they say that the world diesel production was 1234442 thousand tonnes in 2016, or 1234 million tons, or 1.2 billion tons. One toneq corresponds to 6.88 -- 7.33 barrels (depending on the assumptions), let's say it is 7 barrels/ton. The result is that the world diesel production is some 8.5 billion barrels/year, which is a reasonable number considering that the total oil production is some 90 million barrels/day, or 32 billion barrels/year. Converting this to gallons, we need to multiply by 42, and we get 350 billion gallons/year

To recap, the good results are

DIESEL production is 9 Billion Barrels/year OR 350 billion gallons/year

BIODIESEL production is 0.237 Billion Barrels/year OR 10 billion gallons/year

Which means that the total production of biodiesel is 10/360= about 2.8% in volume. A little more than 2% considering the lower heat content in biodiesel.

The poor people who had devised the SI system must be twitching in their tombs when they think at the mess that is the story of the zillion units used in this field.


  1. I think the insight in this post is very important - the system (the entire human civilization) has a huge momentum and it follows a trajectory of its own.
    We can debate if the reason is evolution/human nature (like I do) or just a specific configuration of the society that can be adjusted as we go (like you present in the last paragraph).

    Anyway, thanks for the insight, something to ponder!

  2. Thus, the knee-jerk reaction of so many people when the idea is proposed is "I do not want to change anything, give me a so called ev that uses so called "renewable energy" so that I keep my car". There I fixed it for you.

    More than half of the damage caused by personal transportation is in the production of said vehicle. When you consider the amount of FFs that are needed to build out and maintain "renewable energy" vs the infrastructure already in place for FF based transportation, EVs are as bad an idea as biodiesel.

    1. You know, I always thought that these silly catastrophists only wanted us to starve in the dark and die. And now I know I was right. There, I fixed it for you.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Kind of black or white there. I drive less than 1000 miles a year and I live very well.

      My point is we need to change way more than what we drive if we wish to survive.

    4. Yeah, I did a double-take on that twist in the piece, too. There may be some place for industrial solar and wind in our transition, but not as a way to prop up grossly unsustainable tech like cars.

    5. EVs aren't the solution either.

      "A sustainable civilization can not be a civilization of the car"
      (Chrome: Right-click > Translate to English)

  3. And, BTW, if something goes wrong for real, those silly catastrophists will regret that very much, because we know it was their fault.

    1. And BTW the technocopians will send us all over the cliff but at least it will be in a nice quiet, clean EV ;-}

    2. What do you mean, "if"?
      The very premises of ASPO, the Club of Rome, Limits to Growth are incorrect?

      We'll just have things "not go wrong" if we drive electric cars?? And if we don't invest in electric cars, it will be Our Fault???

    3. What premises? What are you talking about?

    4. Funny that you should ask! The premise of ASPO's work (please correct me if I am wrong), is that oil production will begin to decline, if it has not already. The ramifications of this are a complete disruption of Industrial Civilization.

      The premises of the Limits to Growth are that, according to models run 40+ years ago, increased population growth, resource consumption, pollution and other factors would lead to a population crash starting sometime around now.

      So what do electric cars have to do with staving any of this off? It's patently clear that electric cars will soon be on the scrap heap along with CRTs, Betamax videotape recorders, and your dad's old Polaroid cameras. They don't produce anything.. they don't save anyone's lives.. they are just another expression of energy consumption and technological waste.

    5. You got it completely wrong. ASPO never said that the oil peak would lead to the end of Industrial Civilization. And the 1972 Limits of Growth spoke of a possible population decline, yes, but decades from now.

      Don't misunderstand me, what you say is possible, but nothing in this world is "patently clear" -- nothing. Think about that.

    6. I indicated the clear ramifications, whether ASPO did or not.

      There are certain things in the world which are patently clear: There's No Such Thing As A Free Lunch, for example.

      Unless you want to leave the realm of the physical and venture into the metaphysical.. constraints do exist.

      You didn't answer my question as to how electric vehicles are going to ameliorate our situation rather than just following the Maximum Waste.. uhh, I mean Entropy.. Principles.

  4. There are even more absurd fuel solutions than biodiesel. Here in Serbia people use edible sunflower oil for tractor engines! They buy it in supermarkets in one liter PET bottles. Calculation is simple, since state charges too much tax for diesel, tractor owners use edible oil. One liter of edible sunflower oil costs 100-110 Serbian Dinars and one liter of diesel costs 150 Serbian Dinars. Of these 150 Dinars around 50% is tax!

  5. This comment from George Monbiot in 2007 captures the sentiment underlying the use of biofuels to replace gasoline. What's interesting is that when I have used this quotation in class, some students think it is in bad taste - not that using biofuels is in bad taste, but rather pointing out the consequences without sugar coating! Anyway, here's the comment:

    “Swaziland is in the grip of a famine and receiving emergency food aid. Forty per cent of its people are facing acute food shortages. …The government has allocated several thousand hectares of farmland to ethanol production in … the place worst hit by drought. It would surely be quicker and more humane to refine the Swazi people and put them in our tanks.”

    I guess the same argument could be posed for orangutans, but I'm not sure what the calorific content of a full grown orangutan would be.

  6. In my book Global Eating Disorder I think I made the calculations:
    "A report for Friends of the Earth calculates the realistic bioenergy potential of cropland and grazing land in the year 2050 to be around 70–100 EJ per year. The current global use of fossil fuels stands around 450 EJ/yr. The bioenergy potential from cropland and grazing land is estimated to be in the order of magnitude of 15-22% of current fossil energy use.” Another report by four Swedish researchers at Global Energy Systems, Uppsala University gives similar results. Both reports, optimistically, assume that a large share of crop wastes can be converted to biofuels. This can only be done commercially with new technologies and, if more bio¬mass is diverted from soils to cars, this could have severe side effects on soil fertility. Most papers I have reviewed have exaggerated expectations of the potential yields of biofuel crops, especially given that the authors expect biofuels to expand into marginal lands. While the quantities involved are huge, biofuels accounted for only 2.3% of global transport fuel demand in 2011; Brazil, the United States and the European Union had considerably higher shares, at 20.1%, 4.4%, and 4.2% respectively (2010 figures). According to Lester Brown, if the entire United States grain harvest was turned into ethanol, it would still only satisfy 18% of current United States gasoline demand. "
    So, I believe quite many have pointed our the systemic problem here.

    having said that, I do think there is some scope for biodiesel also in the future, parallel to EVs. There are applications where the combustion engine has quite som advantages. One quite apparent such is for emergency vehicles, fire brigades, admbulances, helicopters etc.
    I must say that I see a bigger system problem than the internal combustion engine in our transport system. The private car itself is a very resource consuming device regardless if it is powered by oil or solar energy.

    1. Excellent point. If we assume 25% efficiency for IC engine and recalculate it comparing weight of vehicle vs. useful load we will see that personal car is disaster! Because of these 25% some 20% is used to move the vehicle itself. From the perspective of useful load the efficiency of personal car is about 5%. Everything else is dissipation. Trucks and buses are somewhat better but frankly, IC engine does not seem like a clever idea at all, it's more like colossal nonsense. The personal car is the biggest offender.

  7. "What we should have done, and we are still in time to do, is to move from the noisy and inefficient internal combustion engines to vehicles that use electric motors powered by renewable energy, much more efficient and non-polluting for real."

    wow, techno-cornucopianism still nonsensically exists. i find it amazing that some people still think "magic green" can somehow allow our rapacious, unsustainable human behavior to continue if we just add "renewables".

    solar pv and wind electric are NOT renewable, and infinite growth is not possible on our finite planet.

    rather then pimping stupidity, perhaps a serious conversation about limits is in order. we can change by choice or change by force, but continuing on as we are is a recipe for disaster regardless how how much green paint is applied.

    1. In my modest opinion, Shastatodd, in the current situation there are two kinds of people guilt of crimes against humankind. One kind is those who say there is are no problems. The other, just as bad, is those who say there are no solutions. I think you get my meaning.

    2. There is a third kind which you allude to in your feature article...people who propose solutions that simply are not a solution at all and in fact make things worse. But at least thats doing something which according to some is better than nothing.

  8. the answer to this question can be found with the man who who makes diesel engines for a living, or builds diesel cars or whatever

    you go up to him and ask him, directly and specifically:

    "Are you prepared to surrender you job to save Orang Utans 10 k miles away?"

    (we are making an assumption for the moment, that he has no other employment available, just for the sake of this discussion)

    His answer (leaving out the rude words) will be no.

    And in that answer lies the fate of the Orang Utan I fear, and many other species.

    We locked ourselves into a system where all expect to have free access to the leverage of the whell, as opposed to it being exclusive to the priveleged elite only a century or so ago.

    We see the vehicle as something that creates wealth, when in fact in consumes it.
    We thought there would always be 'more' because our elected leaders told us do.

    Instead our wheels drained our treasuries instead of filling them. It wasn't meant to work like that. The car even defied entropy and became a work of art, Ferraris selling for $20m, feeding the certainties of humbler carriage users that the vehicle itself will create wealth for humankind into infinity, if only we can find the fuel to drive them.

    The $20m spent on the classic Ferrari ultimately robs the planet at some other (unseen) place, and does not register at the auction room. It has been our accumulate theft of resources in minute amounts, that has effectively looted the planet we live on, to the point where were can extract no more.

    it is a far far bigger problem than the habitat of the great ape.

    Our wheels turn because we use explosive forces to make them do so. Oil is the only practical explosive force we have. We will go on burning it until there is none left, in the pursuit of happiness.

    After that, humankind is going to be overtaken by a great sadness

    this explains our wheel obsession in more detail perhaps:

  9. Permaculture co-founder Bill Mollison made a similar point, I believe in a 1983 PDC. Commenting on the destruction of fisheries by industrial trawlers vacuuming the oceans for fish which wound up in pet food, and the consequent pauperization of subsistence fisherpeople and the starvation of their children, he pointed out it'd be much more efficient to simply grind up the children directly to feed to pets in the overdeveloped world...

  10. very good post. It is quite funny. In a new study from BCG Germany only meet the CO2 reduction target 2030 in section traffic, with 310 PJ of CO2 free Bio-Fuel. Soon Germany will get an new Climate Protection Act.

  11. You guys talking past one another give me a sinking feeling.

    I agree with Ugo that large-scale biodiesel (and biomass fuel for power) is already a disaster, whether or not we see more of it in future. 10 years ago I checked the numbers for the UK. They were ridiculous. Homegrown diesel does not get close to real for UK. We do not have enough cultivable land to feed our 64M selves let alone fuel transport or power.

    However, "What we should have done, and we are still in time to do, is to move from the noisy and inefficient internal combustion engines to vehicles that use electric motors powered by renewable energy, much more efficient and non-polluting for real. Of course, this requires making investments, changing habits"Hmmm.... frankly this seems tongue-in-cheek inadequate.

    Ugo, your arguments are usually more nuanced. You are getting uncomfortably close to what engineer Philippe Bihouix calls "astounding oxymorons" when he borrows Bertrand Méheust’s words "politics of the oxymoron".

    Industrial civilisation has had 'upsides' but even partially deployed so far, is rapidly accelerating world-wide destruction. It cannot be saved from itself by yet more growth. Remember this daft one: "A little growth pollutes, a lot of growth cleans it up"?

    We need to think very hard about why we want renewable fuel. How do we adjust our own needs, now, let alone in 50 years? What infrastructure and tools can be our legacy for children as our ‘advanced’ societies shrink down the slopes of LTG?

    1. Phil, I don't think I want to be nuanced about this. The way I see the situation is that we are witnessing the rise of a vocal minority of people who have decided that renewables are useless on the basis of a distorted understanding of the physics involved. And on the basis of this they have decided that only a small fraction of humankind will be able to survive, the rest need to be exterminated as soon as possible. They don't explicitly say this latter part of their view in their posts, but it is a necessary consequence of their understanding of the situation. For this reason, I say that they are criminals. The definition of a criminal is someone who kills or damages people for any reason, and that's what they are doing -- the risk is to kill billions of people. And I am afraid that their view may become more and more popular in the future, just as it was about one century ago.

    2. Ugo
      OK: I have grandchildren in an urban advanced country needing imported food and energy and transport fuel for an ongoing century or more.
      LTG chart ("… still describes reasonably correctly the state of the world today")
      According to the LTG trends we might expect to see now and in the next few years (my remaining lifetime) a decrease in both industrial capacity and food per capita. 'Resource depletion' is a bit vague to count in my opinion. World population peak and rapid decrease is scheduled from mid-century.
      How would you see Renewables (minus biomass) mitigating the results of decline that look inevitable in children’s or their children’s lifetime? It sounds drastic, but if London, for example is to be lost to the sea – I understand this could be possible as early as first decades of the next century, – then it seems unlikely to be postponed for many decades by any action taken in the interim. Things might not be so drastic everywhere but monsoons could get very erratic and low-lying Bangladesh could shrink. How might we in our very different situations prepare as industrial activity shrinks?
      I can think of better investment than electric automobiles in my own country in the interim. For example, it sounds a pathetically small adjustment but it might help a little:
      It would also be better in my view to reduce the need for essential maintenance and reduce heating cost in Britain’s housing and work spaces.
      What can we conserve that will be valuable beyond the end of the century? The world aviation industry might have to go? Will ‘Renewables’ survive the LTG scenario in smaller scale economies? Populations in ‘advanced’ countries are already scheduled to shrink rapidly over the next 100 years without any excessive death rate.
      PS Sorry about the length of links – I have not mastered the short form.

    3. We fight for the survival of as many as we can. Then, the bottleneck will be over and our descendants will restart with this strange business we call "civilization" -- but it will be a very different one than the one we have today

  12. If we weren't so dam OVERPOPULATED, having a small, fuel efficient car of a EV wouldn't be a problem but 7.6 BILLION HUMANS are not sustainable & we consume too much resources.
    "Renewables" are a technology that some ignorant people believe can "replace" oil, that's rediculous because "renewables" are just a RESOURCE DEPENDENT TECHNOLOGY NOT A "RESOURCE".
    We will have to discover that the hard way when "renewables" fail to live up to their hype, but their very good for PROFITS!

  13. Not sure if this was mentioned explicitly in the article or in other comments, but years ago I did a quick calculation of the potential of biofuels as a replacement for fossil fuels. Net primary production is only 3% of all human energy use. It seems we would need 30 earths to replace all man-made energy with biomass even if we used every calorie stored in biomass every year. So even just replacing transportation fuels with biofuels seems ridiculously unsustainable even if we all gave up eating.

  14. "...Why bad Ideas are Always so Successful?"
    May be because politicians keep pushing their friend´s criminal agendas through the media with the money they extract from people in order to extract more money from people?

  15. It's not only about bad intent (which we see galore) but also about getting the complexity. People, myself included, hate to think hard, hat complexity or just cannot get it. So they resort to the next best thing.

  16. Ugo Bardi, biodiesel was always what we call here in Canada a “boondoggle”. Despair over the continuing industrial and extractive costs of solar and wind energy is also warranted. As your recent book showed, industrial civilization is going to collapse.

    At this point, the most urgent issue is mitigating climate change, not keeping our vehicles running and planes flying. I wonder if focussing on regenerating soils and restoring positive trophic flows to ecosystems around the world might offer a small crack for light to get into a very dark future? I say this because if the thoughts I had here:

    1. Hello, Helga. Nice to have you here. And, yes, that's what my book says, but there is life after collapse -- it is the Seneca Rebound. About that, I'd love to have your opinion on this:

  17. This comment has been removed by the author.

  18. The truth and nothing but the truth about another bad idea:

  19. More about another bad idea:



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)