Biofuels nuances

I agree with the overall thrust of George Monbiot’s piece "US car manufacturers plough a lonely furrow on biofuels" - first-generation biofuels are a terrible way to try to reduce GHG emissions - but there are a few instances where I think he is too simplistic.

First, while biofuel demand for food crops surely contributed to the rise in food prices, there were also other factors at work on both the demand side and the supply side. Estimates vary but in my mind the most credible right now is IFPRI’s using its IMPACT model, which puts biofuels’ share of grain price increases in 2007/8 at around 30%.

Second, while he’s correct in condemning grain and oil crops as biofuels feedstock, he leaves out the best of the first generation – sugarcane. Sugarcane has emissions savings of 60-90%, comparable to the second-generation cellulosic ethanol, and is successfully supplying an increasing share of Brazil’s considerable fuel demand. If the U.S. were to remove its ethanol subsidies and tariffs, Brazilian imports would immediately become competitive. And Amyris is pioneering an attempt to convert sugarcane – which has the highest photosynthetic rate of any food crop – to biodiesel.

Finally, the corn ethanol mandate tops out at about 15 billion gallons, with the rest of the 36 billion gallons in 2022 coming from second-generation ethanol from switchgrass, algae, etc. Who knows whether the technology will be ready by then, but if it is, again, the GHG savings from second-gen ethanol will be considerable

In conclusion, while I agree that the U.S. biofuels program as currently conceived is a boon to farmers and a bane to the rest of the country and the planet, we should not rule out biofuels completely without understanding the many nuances and keeping an open mind as to what future developments may bring.

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