The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation wants subsisidies, tariffs and tax-breaks for biofuels production examined and possibly reduced in a press release which marks the publication of its annual report The State of Food. That report makes a compelling case for the use of cellulosic routes to biofuels, and by implication for much greater fuel efficiency. In the press release, the FAO argues that:
“Current policies tend to favour producers in some developed countriesover producers in most developing countries. The challenge is to reduceor manage the risks while sharing the opportunities more widely.”The FAO puts the total share of the world fuel market supplied by biofuels at 2%. It also makes a point that this blog has made on numerous occassions in the past that
If developing countries can reap the benefits of biofuel production,and if those benefits reach the poor, higher demand for biofuels couldcontribute to rural development. “Opportunities for developing countries to take advantage of biofueldemand would be greatly advanced by the removal of the agricultural andbiofuel subsidies and trade barriers that create an artificial marketand currently benefit producers in OECD countries at the expense ofproducers in developing countries,”
Burried at the end of chapter 1 of the State of food is this gem…
The potential for current biofuel technologies to replace fossil fuels is also illustrated by a hypothetical calculation by Rajagopal et al. (2007). They report theoretical estimates for global ethanol production from the main cereal and sugar crops based on global average yields and commonly reported conversion efficiencies.
The results of their estimates are summarized in Table 3. The crops shown [wheat, rice, maize, cassava,sugar cane, sorghum and sugar beet] account for 42 percent of total cropland today. Conversion of the entire crop production to ethanol would correspond to 57 percent of total petrol consumption. Under a more realistic assumption of 25 percent of each of these crops being diverted to ethanol production, only 14 percent of petrol consumption could be replaced by ethanol. The various hypothetical calculations underline that, in view of their significant land requirements, biofuels can only be expected to lead to a very limited displacement of fossil fuels. Nevertheless, even a very modest contribution of biofuels to overall energy supply may yet have a strong impact on agriculture and on agricultural markets.
My emphasis. Biofuels can only make a marginal difference to the world’s energy demands using current technology, and as I wrote earlier today, second generation technologies around cellulose will become increasingly costly in future.
Should we be downhearted?
There is real scope for biofuels to make a difference, providing that we use the right combination of technologies, we use the right feedstocks and we trade them in the right way. That is fairly across borders using a genuine free market without hidden subsidies or corruption.
I’m going to say it once again, we as a society must get to grips with fuel econonmy in all of its guises, from better home insulation and higher building standards to building cars with greater fuel efficiency.