In the space of 12 months, the biofuels industry has gone from climate saviour to environmental scapegoat. But in the longer-term, it has a crucial - and sustainable - role to play.
Mentioning biofuels is, unfortunately, becoming a good way of raising the temperature of a conversation. Strident headlines warning of disappearing rainforests and orang-utans, impoverishment or famine certainly attract attention, but are not leading to a well-informed debate. We need to stop lumping all biofuels together. There are some that are good, and some that are not so good.
Looking towards a world in which climate change will make life more difficult for many, and one in which it will be harder to find food and energy for a growing global population, biofuels have a real contribution to make.
Produced responsibly they are a sustainable energy source that need not take any land needed for food production; they need not cause environmental degradation; they can help solve the problems of the waste generated by western society; and they can create jobs for poor people where previously there were none. Produced irresponsibly, they, at best, offer no climate benefit and, at worst, have detrimental social and environmental consequences.
In other words, biofuels are pretty much like any other product. Present day biofuels (the so-called first generation) largely come from food crops; I would agree with many of their critics that they do not offer a long-term solution. But looking to the future, the next generation of biofuels will.
Biofuels can all be used in two ways: either combusted, with their energy used directly (e.g. for heat and/or to generate electricity); or they can be used to make liquid fuels for vehicles.
But what are biofuels? Directly or indirectly they come from plant material. Plants capture the energy of the sun by photosynthesis and the carbon dioxide (CO2) that is released when they are burned was extracted from the atmosphere as they grew. To that extent they are carbon neutral.
But account also has to be taken of any emissions that arise from their production, and the first test of a biofuel is whether it contains significantly more energy than was used to produce it. Unfortunately, perverse agricultural subsidies mean that not all fuels pass this test and thus offer little or no climate benefit benefit.
There are two main paths to future biofuels. They can be produced either from specially grown crops or from the by-products of other human activities. The latter involves using the organic (i.e. plant-derived) component of what we have traditionally thrown away as “waste” in urban rubbish (cardboard, waste food, grass cuttings and so on), agricultural by-products such as straw, forestry trimmings and the like and, ultimately, sewage sludge. Some of these materials have other uses (for example, compost) and there has to be a local decision on how best to use the resource.
The fact remains that we throw a great deal away. On one estimate, the organic content of US urban garbage contains enough energy to meet more than half the fuel needs of all the cars in the country. This does not mean that this would be either a wise or practicable course but it does emphasise the size of the energy resource that we discard. All of these starting materials can be treated with enzymes or gasified in a controlled environment to produce clean, synthetic vehicle fuels. The technology to do this is available today, but there is much more development to be done.
The same is true of the other path to future biofuel - breeding special crops. They are special in the sense that they can grow on marginal land where food crops would struggle. One example is jatropha, a wild tree that is widely distributed in tropical areas and carries a fruit that contains three kernels that can be crushed to give a crude oil suitable for making biodiesel. The oil is not edible and is used as a purgative in traditional medicine.
The plant can be cultivated and pruned to a manageable height for the fruit to be picked by hand. This has the enormous additional advantage of creating jobs in areas where often there were limited employment opportunities. About 1.3 people are needed for each hectare of planted jatropha and D1 Oils - the company of which I am chairman - estimates that it has already created around 200,000 jobs worldwide. Far from bringing poverty, biofuels can offer people their first opportunity of making a living. They could also make some developing tropical countries self-sufficient in vehicle fuel.
One of the common arguments used against biofuels is that there is not enough agricultural land available for them to make a real difference. This argument falls if the biofuel is derived from crops grown on marginal land or from wastes. Nevertheless, even their most ardent advocates don’t pretend that biofuels are a complete answer to the world’s energy problems either for power or for vehicles. But we have to recognise that there is no one silver-bullet solution and, faced with a remorseless rise in world energy demand and damaging rises in atmospheric CO2 levels, it makes sense to use everything we can, including biofuels.
Looking ahead, it is possible that biofuels may be superseded for heat and power generation by other renewables and possibly by nuclear fusion. Bioliquids, however, seem likely to be needed as long as we depend on the internal combustion engine.
The biofuels industry is a young one and its product is not yet price competitive with mineral oils. For that reason, governments are providing fiscal and regulatory support. It is right and proper that they do so in a way that discriminates against those that are produced unsustainably. In the longer term, biofuels cannot rely on preferential treatment and must become the fuel of choice not only in sustainability terms, but on cost as well. There is every prospect that they will.