Foreign Policy Blogs

Biofuels , Boon or Bane?

I've written about the controversy regarding biofuels a couple of times.  There appears to be, in a nutshell, considerable controversy over whether the stampede to cultivate crops for use as feedstock for fuel is a good thing or a bad thing.  Back in May, I reported on a blockbuster report from the prestigious "Foreign Affairs" that warned of dire consequences for food production and pricing if we go too far down the road with this.  See Biofuels , "All that glisters is not gold" here.  The equally prestigious "Nature" expressed concerns at their blog (referenced at the same post). 

On the other hand, I talked about the hopeful signs for cellulosic ethanol , an ethanol not derived from food itself, but from byproducts of food production, and non-food crops.  See Advanced Research – Cellulosic Ethanol at my post here from July.

Meanwhile, biodiesel production plants are popping up all over the U.S.  These are big plants.  See this from "EERE Network News," an informative electronic newsletter from the US DOE's Division of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.  (Check out the cute and useful video, and other materials for kids, on energy saving , it's a "Ratatouille" thing.) 

The venerable sustainable development think tank, Worldwatch Institute, has an extensive new report on biofuels.  See Food and Fuel: Biofuels Could Benefit World's Undernourished.  This report, undertaken with support from the German government, is duly cautionary about the use of food crops.  Corn comprises half of the world's ethanol production now and it requires vast amounts of fuel and chemical input for its cultivation and conversion.  Palm oil plantations in Asia and sugar plantations in Brazil are responsible for massive rainforest destruction.  But, the report concludes:  "the long-term potential of biofuels is in the use of non-food feedstock, including agricultural and forestry wastes, as well as fast-growing, cellulose-rich energy crops such as perennial grasses and trees."  And, as always, Worldwatch sees the big picture.  Although they think that biofuel production could vastly benefit developing countries by creating cash crops for farmers and save money for these fragile economies by avoiding the enormous costs of importing fossil fuels for transport, a responsible approach "must be part of a portfolio of options that includes dramatic improvements in vehicle fuel economy, investment in public transportation, and better urban planning."

In the same vein, see also this recent op-ed in the FT from the director-general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, Biofuels should benefit the poor, not the rich.



Bill Hewitt

Bill Hewitt has been an environmental activist and professional for nearly 25 years. He was deeply involved in the battle to curtail acid rain, and was also a Sierra Club leader in New York City. He spent 11 years in public affairs for the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation, and worked on environmental issues for two NYC mayoral campaigns and a presidential campaign. He is a writer and editor and is the principal of Hewitt Communications. He has an M.S. in international affairs, has taught political science at Pace University, and has graduate and continuing education classes on climate change, sustainability, and energy and the environment at The Center for Global Affairs at NYU. His book, "A Newer World - Politics, Money, Technology, and What’s Really Being Done to Solve the Climate Crisis," will be out from the University Press of New England in December.

Areas of Focus:
the policy, politics, science and economics of environmental protection, sustainability, energy and climate change