5 June 2004

The East Anglian biofuels bubble

By Andrew Boswell

Slowing climate change is everyone's responsibility now, and much excitement has been generated by the plans for East Anglian farmers to grow oil seed rape for a local biodiesel fuel industry. It is suggested that biofuels can replace dwindling, price spiralling and polluting fossil fuel oil. Already the "Oil Fields of East Anglia" are being promoted as a green way to diminish the harmful global warming caused by road transport.

It is said these new crops will boost the fortunes of struggling small farmers all over East Anglia, and MPs like Gillian Shepherd and Keith Simpson are throwing their weight behind the biofuels movement.

Small scale biofuel production is a good idea, but can it scale up to have the desired good result for the climate? Well, we haven't enough land to replace Oil based diesel altogether with biodiesel, and, even highly intensive agriculture will produce at best enough biofuel to make a 5-10% diesel (ie 90-95% still Oil based). This reduces the amount of CO2 emitted from a diesel-burning engines, so is it enough to do the trick?

Well, the EU target is to create 5.75% biofuels by 2010, but EU road traffic is growing at around 2% per year, and the emissions from just 4 years' traffic growth at 2% per year would put us back to where we started again. The cost to get us back to square one would requires all "set-aside" land across Europe, and some food land to be used for biofuels.

That might give us a breathing space to come up with something else, but, in other countries, vehicle numbers aren't increasing by only 2%; in China, they doubled over the last three years alone, so there's their CO2 to consider as well as ours.

That's the bad news. We hear the good news is that unlike pumping Oil from underground, growing next year's crop of oil seed rape absorbs the CO2 produced by vehicles this year, thanks to the wonders of photosynthesis. So that's all right then.

Except, that to grow this year's crop, farmers will have to cultivate the fields with tractors and drive the product to the factory, 3-8 million transport miles per year depending on production capacity, all of which will have consumed large amounts of diesel, only 10% of which is likely to be biodiesel. And except that growing the rape, as intensively as modern agriculture insists, means applying plenty of nitrogenous fertiliser. Unfortunately, it needs huge amounts of energy and greenhouse gas emissions to produce it, as well as causing the soil to release nitrous oxide (N2O), a gas which is 310 times more potent than CO2 in causing global warming.

So, we are still looking for some good news to entitle us to feel that biodiesel is going to change the climate in the right direction. Unfortunately, there is one more distinctly biodiesel-unfriendly point. The government's chief scientist recently warned again that severe weather conditions across the world can be expected more often. Insurance claims for drought and heat-related animal and crop losses came to over £7 billion in the EU alone. Biofuels cannot, therefore, be regarded as a 'reliable' fuel source.

And, every field that grows biodiesel means one less field growing food - one less field's worth of supermarket shelves for us to choose from. No one would put up with that, least of all the supermarket owners. So they will try to fill those shelves by importing the food from abroad with further more transportation emissions.

What about the small farmers? To operate industrial scale biofuel plants, long-term contract prices will have to be kept low, for production to be "viable". Low long-term contract prices favour only large landowners and agri-businesses amongst who will demand GM crops to meet their commercial drive for high yields. And small farms will be unable to act on this scale and will continue to be bought out by large ones.

I support any measure which provides verified long-term and sustainable benefits to our environment, but suggest more research and consultation is required on the real "climate change" costs of biofuels. Let's support small scale production exemplars, but we must be cautious in growing a large agri-business industry that may only be a diversion from developing longer-term greener renewable energy sources (eg wave and tidal power).

What we really need is the political will to demand the Government to develop transport policies which reduce dependence on private motor cars. The review of the 10-year transport plan, due in July, provides an ideal opportunity.

I am indebted to Peter Lanyon for the inspiration and much research for this article.