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Independent Green Voice

Alistair McConnachie writes

grass2 pic

Biofuels are renewable fuels derived from vegetable matter. Vehicles can run entirely on biofuels or a blend of petrol or diesel. There are 2 kinds of biofuel for transport energy:

BIO-DIESEL is made from vegetable oil and rapeseed oil, or it can be converted from used cooking oil and tallow (animal fat). About 100,000 tonnes of used cooking oil and 230,000 tonnes of tallow are collected in the UK each year -- and would otherwise be incinerated, put in landfill or exported.

BIO-ETHANOL is made from carbohydrate crops such as maize, sugar beet, wheat, potatoes and a variety of other starch and sugar crops. It can also be derived from cellulose found in common vegetation ("cellulosic ethanol"). For example, in the USA, attempts are being made to extract bioethanol from switchgrass, which grows 12ft tall. Henry Ford's Model T was originally designed to run on ethanol.

The advantages and disadvantages of biofuels are much the same as biomass and the same principles apply (see link to biomass.html). However, we emphasise the following:


  • Growing crops for biofuel absorbs the carbon that biofuels emit, but it does not absorb the fossil fuel emissions created in planting, fertilizing, treating, harvesting, transporting and processing these crops before they can be made into fuel. There are also considerable carbon emissions from the coal or gas required to heat the raw materials in the manufacturing process. Its production can also lead to environmental destruction. Brazil, for example, produces ethanol from sugar cane -- but to do so is cutting down the rain forest!
  • Too much concentration on running vehicles on plant oil would set up a direct competition between feeding cars and feeding people. To run all vehicles in the UK on biofuels would require more land than we have available! This would not increase our self-reliance but would increase our food and energy vulnerability.

    As Robin Maynard wrote, we need to "reduce our reliance on long-distance, oil-hungry food imports and use our own farmland to feed people, not cars."1 He writes that figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show that Europe would need to convert more than 70% of its total arable land if it were ever to reach a target of even just 10% of all fuel being biofuel!2

    Like large-scale biomass production, large-scale biofuel production is not possible without destroying British and European food sovereignty!

    The EU Biofuel Directive 2003/30/EC is titled, "on the promotion of the use of biofuels or other renewable fuels for transport" and sets a non-compulsory target for member states to aim for 5.75% of road transport fuel to be biofuel by Dec 2010.

    The Farmers Weekly has stated that in the UK this means 2.1m tonnes of fuel produced from 1.25m hectares (3.1m acres).3

    It has also been calculated that 16m tonnes of diesel are sold in the UK per year. If 5% of that were to be rapeseed-based biodiesel we would require an 800,000 tonne requirement of biodiesel. At a ration of 3 tonnes of rapeseed to make 1 tonne of biodiesel, we would require 2.4m tonnes of rapeseed to be grown -- which is roughly double the UK's current total output of oilseed rape.4

    What would be the implications for British food sovereignty with these figures? In that regard, we produce around 16m tonnes of wheat a year and consume 12m. It has been claimed that if the 4m surplus went into bioethanol instead of being exported, then farmers would supply 5% of the UK's fuel demand at a stroke5 -- but of course, it is not that simple!

    There is also the fact that a large amount of land is "set-aside" and is currently unproductive. Some of it could be used to produce biofuels. In 2002 the Farmers Weekly claimed that Britain's then 800,000ha (2m acres) of set-aside could be used to produce 1m tonnes of biofuel.6 These figures tend to suggest that the UK might be able to reach the EU target of 5.75% eventually, without an impact upon present food production levels -- although these are already too low anyway.

    Biofuel, like all alternative energy mechanisms, is not the whole answer, but it can be part of the answer. In addition to our 3 overall principles of ecological sustainability the following principles inform our biofuel policy:

  • Prioritise Food Production, with the aim of national food sovereignty. Let's remember that we are not self-sufficient in food in the first place, and it is to that vital requirement that our efforts should first be directed. Biofuel policy should only be considered within an overall plan to ensure maximum food sovereignty in indigenous food. Any spare capacity left after that could then be considered for biofuels.

  • Biofuels must be Integrated in a Sustainable Cycle. Wood chips imported from endangered forests, or from sugar cane planted where such forest stood, is not a sustainable cycle! Nor is it sustainable to encourage developing world countries to plant such cash crops for export, at the expense of their own food sovereignty -- which would also lead to the depletion of their water levels.

    Policy Proposals for Local, Small to Medium-Scale,
    Biofuel Energy Provision
    • Emphasise Demand Reduction: Biofuels are not an excuse to continue unsustainable levels of energy use.

    • Prioritise and Support Technologies to Create Biofuel from Waste Products, such as used cooking oil and tallow. The Thermal Depolymerisation Process (TDP) can turn animal waste, offal, old tyres, junked computers and any old waste into oil and gas. SWERF: Solid Waste and Energy Recycling Facility technology has the ability to produce electricity from almost any kind of waste matter, although care needs to be exercised in considering the levels of energy use and possible pollution involved in this technology.

    • Promote Organic Biofuels, and/or Biofuels from Low Maintenance Crops: Biofuel can be inefficient because intensive methods require high levels of fossil fuel to produce and apply the fertilizer, herbicides and insecticides. Organic biofuels would have the potential to be more energy efficient. Indeed, a requirement that biofuels can only be farmed organically would increase their energy efficiency! Hemp is a very low maintenance crop and it is the fuel which Rudolf Diesel, the German inventor, originally intended to fire his engines.

    • Ban Imported Biofuels: It is one of our stated principles of ecological sustainability that the supply of renewable energy must be local to the end-users who consume it (Jan 07). For a biofuels policy to make sense, therefore, we need to recognise that importing biofuels from Brazil, or anywhere else, where much of it is also produced unsustainably, is contrary to our ecological purpose. At the very least, we should ban the importation of palm oil which causes rainforest destruction.

    • Reduce Duty only on Domestically-Produced Biofuel: Reducing duty on imported biofuels will lead to the nascent British biofuel industry being drowned at birth under a gush of cheaper foreign imports!

    • Encourage Home-Based Biofuel Production. It is not illegal to run your car on cooking oil -- so long as you pay duty.

    • Support Small Biofuel Suppliers by, for example, enabling them to bid for government funding for recycling and allowing them to collect waste oils from schools and hospitals.

    • Encourage Locally Produced Biofuel: Shorten the chain between biofuel-growers and energy end-users by encouraging on-farm production -- with the use of small-scale crushing and filtering machines -- to enable farmers to sell fuel directly to the public. This may be particularly helpful in isolated rural areas.

    • Encourage Users to be Producers: Biofuels are, at present, dependent upon fossil fuels. We need an integrated cycle where the vehicles which produce and transport the biofuels are powered by biofuels. For example, farmers' tractors powered by biofuels which farmers process on-farm. Council vehicles and buses, especially, running on used vegetable oil from local schools and hospitals -- Army vehicles running on oil from mess halls, police vehicles from canteens, and so on!

    • Research and Develop Fuel Efficient Vehicles -- running on biofuels, electricity, and hydrogen fuel cells.

    (1)  Robin Maynard, "Against the Grain", The Ecologist, March 2007, pp.28-32, at 31.
    (2)  Ibid, p.28.
    (3)  Stephen Howe and Mike Stones, "Lobby hard to win guaranteed market", Farmers Weekly, 6-12/2/04, p.14.
    (4)  Jonathan Riley, "Forecourt debut for rape-blend biodiesel", Farmers Weekly, 21-6-02, p.15.
    (5)  Tracey Boles and Richard Orange, "Where do you get your energy from?" The Business, 2/3-10-05, pp.1+6 at 6.
    (6)  Farmers Weekly, "How you can help biofuel lobby", 7-6-02.

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