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Biofuels for transport

Global potential and implications for sustainable energy and agriculture
Worldwatch Institute
Published by Earthscan
Website: www.earthscan.co.uk
2007, 452pp, ISBN 978 1 84407 422 8(Hb), £49.95

Like it or not, the age of biofuel has arrived and is here to stay. But the convergence of the markets for fuel, food and fibre - the "three Fs" - has ignited a debate where the arguments have tended to be polarised. Either biofuels are inherently good - the panacea to widespread oil dependence and fuel insecurity, promoting employment and spreading wealth to some of the poorest regions in the world. Or they are inherently bad, with any potential benefits being eclipsed as feedstock production gobbles up agricultural estates, large corporations eject smallholders from their land, and food prices are driven beyond the means of the poor. But, as this authoritative study from the Worldwatch Institute shows, the debate is not so clear-cut.

The report is essential reading for researchers and policymakers at all levels. It cuts through opposing arguments with data on all aspects of biofuel use in transportation, from issues concerning the environment, international trade, and technology strategies, to social implications, certification schemes and next-generation feedstocks.

As an alternative fuel source for transport, the potential of biofuel is impossible to ignore. As the report states, biofuel is "the only large near-term substitute for the petroleum fuels that provide more than 95 per cent of the world's transportation energy." Consequently, governments around the world are increasing production of feedstocks - sugarcane, soybeans and oilseed rape - and formulating policies to introduce mixes of bio- and fossil fuels for domestic vehicles. Venezuela anticipates an ethanol blend of 10 per cent could provide one million jobs in its sugarcane ethanol industry by 2012. In China, nine million jobs could result from the large-scale processing of agricultural and forestry products into liquid fuels in the long term. Brazil has saved some US$50bn on imported oil since its switch to biofuel during the oil price shocks of the 1970s. The allure of biofuel is hard to deny.

A key conclusion of the report is that the impact on rural populations is highly dependent on the form biofuel production takes, and the policies that governments adopt. On the one hand it notes that although production of feedstock is labour-intensive and has potential to rehabilitate rural communities where unemployment is endemic, "sugarcane, in particular, has an ugly history of exploiting temporary workers" and "could raise food prices and contribute to hunger." On the other hand "biofuel programmes... could help to address the root of world hunger: poverty." To maximise the poverty-reducing potential of biofuels, the report calls for policies to promote smallscale, labour-intensive production rather than a preponderance of "large plantations of monocultures controlled by wealthy producers, who could drive farmers from their land..."

Ultimately, the report envisages two "worlds" of biofuel production, one involving large, hi-tech corporations and the other small, low-tech facilities, "focused primarily on poverty alleviation through rural energy provision and local agri-industry development..." The authors believe both worlds can coexist, but warns that "one thing is certain: the more involved farmers are in the production, processing and use of biofuels, the more likely they are to benefit from them." The report's clarion call is clear and urgent: to share the benefits of biofuel across society - the time for action is now.

Date published: November 2007

 

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