FOR SOME time now, it has been obvious that biofuels will not provide the anticipated panacea to cope with rising carbon emissions and global warming. The amount of land that would have to be cultivated to provide the necessary raw materials to meet EU targets represents a major impediment. But, more importantly, the knock-on effect on world food prices makes the exercise morally and economically suspect. The production of alternative fuels should not be allowed to contribute to growing hunger in developing countries.
Minister for Energy Eamon Ryan has recognised this dichotomy and announced that Government plans for a nine-fold increase in biofuels usage by 2010 had been scrapped. He has also suggested to the EU Commission that its ambitious biofuel targets should be scaled back. That is a reasonable response to international concerns that some forms of biofuel production are not only horribly inefficient but are driving up food prices. Food riots around the globe in the first six months of this year are an indication of growing instability and public anger.
Biofuel was hailed as the clean, green answer to climate change. Two years ago, President George Bush introduced large subsidies to promote the production of ethanol from corn and wheat, one-third of all corn production in the US is now utilised in this way. The result has been a spike in food prices around the globe as lower US grain exports impacted on local markets. It also encouraged speculation in commodities and food. Questions have been raised also about the role of government subsidies and the high energy cost in producing ethanol from grain.
This is not to say that experimentation in the growth and development of biofuels should cease or that materials should not be recycled so as to minimise our dependence on oil. But there should be a clear recognition that the production of ethanol as an alternative transport fuel is not the answer to rising oil prices. It still amounts to old technology. What is required are inventions that harness alternative energy sources.
Research is continuing here into so-called “second generation” biofuel options that would utilise various grasses and other materials. Even if successful, they are unlikely to meet the biofuel targets that have been set. In those circumstances, we should review commitments that would automatically lead to large-scale importation of biofuels. The impact the production of such fuels has on the environment and on the poorest of the poor should take precedence over other considerations.