An alternative view on biofuels, from a Briton in Sudan
I’ve just discovered a great blog maintained by Clive Bates, a self-described “selfless public servant, amateur chef, novice mountaineer, lawless cyclist, overweight runner and occasional optimist.” He is being modest: he’s the former head of ASH (Action on Smoking and Health) in the UK and more recently the Head of Environmental Policy at the UK Environment Agency.
Over the last two years, Bates has written extensively and persuasively on a wide range of topics, particularly on environmental and energy policies, and climate change.
In his latest post, about biofuel policy, Bates states:
Instead of asking how to reduce transport emissions from road fuel substitution, we should be asking how to make use of land to tackle climate change in the most effective way possible. In coming up with the biofuels targets, policy-makers have asked, and answered, the wrong question. It’s not hard to see why … transport policy-makers have to find transport policies. The results: waste, damage and lost opportunities to do better …
He starts off:
There are two main problems with biofuels:
(1) they are a very expensive way of saving carbon, compared to the alternatives (at least 10x the going rate in the EU ETS) — see chart and click to view in detail;
(2) there are substantial negative ‘sustainability’ impacts, arising from changes in land use for biofuel production — for example deforestation, water impacts or land shortages.
Beyond rhetoric, we appear almost indifferent to these. Despite these weaknesses, we now have extremely powerful and expensive policy instruments devoted to promoting biofuels.
In the chart above (click here for a full-page version), Bates put together data from Table 30 of the UK government’s Biomass Strategy “Working Paper 1 – Economic analysis of biomass technologies” (PDF), from May of this year. It shows that the government’s Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) is focused at the most expensive end of the range of biomass options. "In fact," he writes, “these are at the expensive end of all carbon abatement technologies — perhaps 10 times the going rate in the EU Emission Trading Scheme.
He then asks:
Why, you might well ask, is the government acting so irrationally? Forcing very large sums into inefficient policy instruments for little environmental gain. I think this illustrates an important failing of climate policy. Obviously this has its origins in the EU (in which the UK is an accessory to poor decisions taken by the Council), where the biofuel targets have been set at arbitrarily high levels. I suspect the idea of biofuels targets have come from policy-makers asking the question: “how do we reduce the emissions from transport?” They conclude that fuel substitution is one of the best options they have then designed a mechanism to make that work — but by indiscriminately subsidising a change of land-use in Europe and beyond. Perhaps they feel an implicit sectoral burden sharing regime at work … that transport must somehow take its “fair share” of the reductions compared to power station, chemical plant and homes. Of course, the climate is indifferent to burden sharing … it doesn’t care where the reductions come from. Reading the Energy White Paper [Transport section], you can feel the implicit burden sharing in the text:
For transport to reduce its climate change impacts we need to enable smarter, more energy efficient use of transport and we need to reduce carbon emissions by bringing about changes in the types of vehicles and fuels we use.
The biomass strategy goes further [UK Biomass Strategy p7] — it recognises that transport biofuels sit at the expensive end of a hierarchy of biomass options, but then concludes it would be simplistic to think about it like that …
… despite their higher cost of carbon, transport biofuels are essential to carbon savings in the transport sector for which there are few other options in the short to medium term.
But this is the simplistic thinking … we should get the emissions reductions where lowest cost and least damaging overall. The issue is that no-one has the policy brief to optimise these resources: but there is plenty of muscular transport policy-making going on — trying to do the wrong thing well, and establishing a meaningless policy priority.
Bates then goes on to argue for looking at land from the perspective of how its management contributes to climate change, rather than from the narrow perspective of how it can serve an arbitrary set of biofuel targets.
There is more to his argument, but I’ll leave readers with one of my favorite passages:
[T]he stand-by excuse of technology-promoting scoundrels everywhere is that we need big subsidies now to prepare for the brave new dawn tomorrow. I agree you need an innovation system — but it’s not obvious that you get to cheap second-generation biofuels via lavish subsidies for a very large uptake of expensive dead-end first generation biofuels. For now, the best transport responses are fuel efficiency and changes in driver behaviour. Longer term it’s about mobility demand and the physical layout of our lives. [my emphasis]
By the way, Clive Bates is about to become the Head of the UN Environment Programme in Sudan. I hope he still finds time to maintain his blog.