Policy decisions nearly always involve trade-offs, and require the balancing of diffuse interests. It’s not often, then, that nearly every single stakeholder in an issue denounces a given strategy, but that’s exactly what’s happening with biofuels. As the New York Times reports, a new report from the environmental think tank World Resources Institute has some harsh words for the supposedly green policy:
Turning plant matter into liquid fuel or electricity is so inefficient that the approach is unlikely ever to supply a substantial fraction of global energy demand, the report found. It added that continuing to pursue this strategy — which has already led to billions of dollars of investment — is likely to use up vast tracts of fertile land that could be devoted to helping feed the world’s growing population. […][B]iofuels are an inefficient way to convert sunlight to fuel, meaning an immense amount of land would be required to supply a significant fraction of global energy demand, [the report’s primary author Timothy D. Searchinger] said.That land will also be needed to help meet a global appetite for food that is expected to rise 70 percent or so by 2050, he said.
This report isn’t telling us anything we didn’t already know. When it’s derived from corn, as the vast majority of America’s supply is, biofuels aren’t green. They’re also expensive to produce, a fact that’s being cast into sharper and sharper relief as gas prices continue to drop, hitting ethanol refiners’ margins. Moreover, the dubious subsidy regimes that have propped up this boondoggle carry an opportunity cost: fields used to grow biofuel stock could be devoted to growing food crops. That means biofuels help drive up global food prices, starving the world’s poor and potentially even inciting riots.It is significant, however, that a green think tank released this report. The environmental movement has a dismal policy track record, and even it is waking up to the unmitigated disaster that we’ve come to call the biofuel boondoggle. Legislators considered but ultimately passed on bills to reform and even repeal America’s biofuel mandate program last session. Let’s hope the 114th Congress does better.