Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive. Or to develop a biofuels policy. I’ve just attended a breakfast briefing on biofuels (sponsored by the European Biodiesel Board, an industry lobby group), and it’s very murky water indeed. The industry (what a surprise!) had lined up a group of scientists and “modellers” to make a case on ILUC, or indirect land use change. It gets complicated – but it is an instructive illustration of the confusion that is created by the bureaucratic pursuit of the climate change Chimæra.
Bear in mind that biofuels are part of Brussels’ effort to mitigate climate change. And man-made climate change itself is a theoretical concept based on highly disputed models, which are spectacularly failing to conform with the observed trend in mean global temperatures. All the models show temperatures increasing with atmospheric CO2. Yet there has been no statistically significant warming now for nearly two decades, despite a steady increase in atmospheric CO2, which has now reached the dizzy height of 0.04%.
Then someone had the neat but simplistic idea that we could burn organic material, which would be carbon neutral, since re-growth would re-absorb the CO2 released by the burning, and the bio-fuel industry was born.
It was soon realised that several factors may interfere with this process. First, agriculture uses all sorts of energy inputs, notably in terms of diesel tractors, plus fertilisers and pesticides. This partially off-sets the expected emissions savings.
Second, the delay in regrowth. For example, a recent study suggested that while the use of wood pellets from mature American forests at the Drax power station could reduce emissions, it would do so only in the very long term – perhaps forty years. And in the meantime, it could actually increase emissions compared to using coal. Given that Tony Blair and Prince Charles have been telling us that the Earth’s climate will reach a disastrous “Tipping Point” in ten minutes or so, a measure that increases emissions for forty years seems ill-advised.
But recently, a third issue has come to the fore: ILUC. If you take land into cultivation for bio-fuels, you displace at least some other agricultural activity to other land: perhaps marginal land, or fallow land, or land previously forested, or (perhaps worst of all) peat-land, which may be drained for agriculture. All of these involve some negative impact from an emissions/climate-change point of view.
So there now seems to be a new scientific discipline in modelling the impact of ILUC. But it is arguably little more than scientific guesswork. It may be possible to make reasonable estimates of the emissions/carbon-balance impact of using various types of land, but then you have to make estimates – or wild guesses – about how much agricultural activity will be displaced, and what type of land will be used. The impact also varies according to the bio-fuel crop involved. Soy. Rape-seed. Sorghum. Wheat. Palm oil. Corn/maize. Sugar cane.
It seems that the Commission relies on the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and its MIRAGE model, although it’s not keen to share details of the model. The industry, not surprisingly, favours the Global Trade Analysis Project or GTAP model, which delivers lower estimates of ILUC impact.
The debate in parliament is about whether to build the ILUC issue into the revised rules, or whether the science (and guesswork) is too uncertain at this stage. There is also a Commission proposal to reduce the mandated target level of bio-fuels in petrol and diesel from 10% to 5%, in view of ILUC doubts. The industry, having invested on the basis of 10%, is naturally seething. And constituents are writing to MEPs concerned about the impact of bio-fuels on global food supplies and world hunger, and demanding we vote for the 5% limit.
Where does UKIP stand? We think that biofuels are unnecessary, especially in a world awash with gas. And we are concerned about the food supply impact of burning food crops. Equally, we share the concern of the industry that they are being led up the garden path by the shifts in regulation. Across the whole energy spectrum, regulatory uncertainty is holding back progress and investment.
We have no problem with the idea of using “second generation” bio-fuels (or is it third-generation?) – that is, agricultural wastes, as bio-fuels. But only if it’s economic to do so.