Christopher Booker and Richard North
Sunday, July 13, 2008
Rarely in political history can there have been such a rapid and dramatic reversal of a received wisdom as we have seen in the past 18 months over biofuels – the cropping of living plants, such as soya beans, wheat and sugar cane, to generate energy.
Two years ago biofuels were still being hailed as a dream solution to what was seen as one of the most urgent problems confronting mankind – our dependence on fossil fuels, which are not only finite but seemed to be threatening the world with the catastrophe of global warming.
In March 2007 the leaders of the European Union, in a package of measures designed to lead the world in the “fight against climate change”, committed us by 2020 to deriving 10 per cent of all transport fuel from “renewables”, above all biofuels, which theoretically gave off no more carbon dioxide than was absorbed in their growing.
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Since then, however, the biofuels dream has been disintegrating with the speed of a collapsing card house. Environmentalists, formerly keen on this “green energy”, expressed horror at the havoc it was inflicting on the world’s eco-systems, not least the clearing of rainforests to grow fuel crops.
As the world suddenly faced its worst food shortage for decades, sending prices spiralling, experts pointed out that a major cause had been diverting millions of acres of farmland from food production to fuel. The damage this was inflicting on the world’s poor led a United Nations official to describe the rush for biofuels as “a crime against humanity”.
As damaging as anything to the belief that biofuels could help save the planet from global warming have been various studies showing that producing biofuels can give off more carbon dioxide than they save. So devastating has been this backlash that even the British Government, which prides itself on being the greenest of the green, commissioned a review, published last Monday, urging a slowdown in the move to biofuels. When this recommendation was endorsed by senior ministers, this put the UK directly at odds with a European Union policy to which it had already signed up. But the EU is firmly holding its line, saying it has no intention of lowering its target.
How did we come to such a pass? The story of mankind’s love affair with biofuels goes back much further than most people realise, and has unfolded through five stages. Stage One of the story dates back to the dawn of modern transport and the invention of the internal combustion engine. When Rudolf Diesel invented the engine that bears his name, he designed it to run on peanut oil. When Henry Ford designed the first mass-produced car, the Model T, he intended it to run on ethanol derived from two of America’s most abundant crops, corn (maize) and hemp.
But in the 1920s the burgeoning petroleum industry managed to squeeze out this competitor so effectively that the first stage in the biofuels story was over. Stage Two began in the 1970s, when a fourfold rise in oil prices and fears that reserves might be running out prompted a renewal of interest in biofuels – particularly among the new environmentalist groups, who saw them as “sustainable” energy. In 1981 this was taken up by the UN, at a conference on Renewable Sources of Energy, leading to a report in 1987 which prompted the UN to adopt a Programme on Sustainable Development, with biofuels playing a large part.
Stage Three began in 1992, when two developments coincided to move biofuels even higher up the political agenda. First, following a further oil price hike after the first Gulf War, Washington and Brussels believed that biofuels could be a way of using their then-massive crop surpluses to wean the United States and the EU off dependence on imported oil. The other came at the UN’s Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, when 100 world leaders and 20,000 environmentalists gathered to discuss mankind’s response to new environmental challenges, notably “global warming”.
It was at this moment that the cause of biofuels, long championed by the UN for other reasons, became part of the “climate change” agenda. Over the next 10 years, the cause was driven by these two quite separate concerns. On the one hand, particularly in the US, a powerful lobby grew up among farmers who were encouraged by their governments to see biofuels as a lucrative source of income (in the US alone, annual biofuel production now tops nine billion gallons).
This article was posted: Sunday, July 13, 2008 at 5:22 am