To meet mandates set out by a 2007 law, American refineries are blending in progressively larger amounts of ethanol distilled from food crops, specifically corn. On paper, that may sound great—we’re boosting domestic production of transportation fuels through agriculture, a seemingly green process—but in practice corn-based ethanol is a policy disaster. Because it competes with corn’s primary use (feeding people), it raises global food prices, starving the world’s poor. Worse, it’s contributing to greater monocultures in our heartlands, killing off honeybee populations and eroding soil quality. Maybe most damningly, corn biofuels have been shown to actually increase greenhouse gas emissions, destroying their “green” justification. No wonder so many stakeholders want to see this farce ended.
Corn-based ethanol isn’t the only food crop used to create ethanol. Over in the UK, they use wheat to meet their “green” targets. As the BBC notes, a recent study from Britain’s Royal Academy of Engineering found that “fuel based on [wheat] was worse for the environment than regular petrol or diesel.” The biofuel boondoggle spans continents, apparently.
But wheat- and corn-based ethanol give biofuels a bad name. There are alternatives, belonging to a so-called “second generation” of biofuels, that don’t rely on food crops. These better biofuels can strengthen energy security while helping the environment. More:
[The] report suggests that renewed emphasis be placed on developing waste. In the UK we produce 16 million tonnes every year, enough to double our current biofuel supplies. A third of that waste is called green waste, a quarter of it is agricultural straw.
The authors believe there is great scope for expansion in the use of unavoidable waste, such as used cooking oil, forest and sawmill residues, the dregs from whisky manufacture, even so-called “fatbergs” from sewers could play a role.
Agricultural waste can be used to create ethanol, but farmers can also do more to grow cellulosic crops on marginal land—that is, land not currently being used for crops. Unlike food-based options, cellulosic biofuels are the real thing.
Decades from now we’ll look back ruefully at this time period and shake our heads at these well-intentioned but poorly thought-out green policy schema. The world’s current approach to biofuels deserves plenty of scorn in the present, though, and the quicker we move away from this shambolic strategy towards one that actually works, the better.