Monday, March 5, 2007

NZ: Warnings on road to biofuels


Editorial: Warnings on road to biofuels
Email this storyPrint this story 5:00AM Monday March 05, 2007

The Prime Minister is ploughing a field of fertile receptiveness with
her theme of "environmental sustainability". In the latest Herald
DigiPoll survey, 71.4 per cent of those questioned agreed with the
Government's approach. Concern about climate change has brought a
dramatic change in sentiment in a short time. So much so that a majority
of people would even be prepared to pay a bit more for petrol so their
cars would emit less carbon.

They may not need to. The Government says biofuel blends, which oil
companies will be forced to sell, will cost no more than ordinary petrol
or diesel. Biofuels will be only a tiny proportion - 0.53 per cent - of
oil company sales next year, although that is scheduled to rise to 3.4
per cent in five years. But whatever the lack of impact on the wallet at
the pump, there will be an array of other costs in other areas, most of
which are only starting to be grasped and all of which need to be
carefully considered.

The Government calculates that New Zealand can meet most of its biofuel
demand domestically from agricultural byproducts such as whey and
tallow. But the price of tallow is subject to strong demand from Asia,
where it is used, among other things, in soap manufacture. That may mean
the only option is to import feedstocks or finished biofuels, which may
or may not be sustainably produced. They may have been grown at a
considerable expense to tropical rainforests, water resources or
affordable food.

Overseas, other drawbacks are becoming apparent as the biofuel
juggernaut gathers pace. Most were not predicted and all are unintended.
For example, so many American farmers are planting corn, the cheapest
feedstock option, that it has doubled in price and is constraining
supplies of other crops. Normal agricultural practice has been
suspended. And a University of Minnesota study has concluded there may
even be a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions if more land is
devoted to growing corn.

Soaring demand and rising prices for feedstocks associated with the
biofuels buzz must force up the price of food. This has obvious
implications for living standards. So, too, does the possibility that
biofuels could be symptomatic of a range of ill-conceived responses to
climate change. With public sentiment on the side of the
environmentalists, the clarion call will be to do ever more, especially
if the first initiatives do not deliver the intended benefits. Too
often, there could be too little attention to complexity and
consequence, and living standards could, increasingly, be imperilled.

Slogans and simplistic thinking are no substitutes for policies that
deliver an effective response and do not have untenable economic and
environmental consequences. If biofuels begin to resemble a runaway
train, the only triumph would be that of easy but, ultimately, errant
policy. It is reasonable to ask whether it would not be more sensible to
to simply burn crops for power, rather than trying to turn them into
fuel for transport? There would be an instant saving of the energy used
in the conversion process. True, a car-crazy world would be deprived of
an instant feel-good factor. But the response would be more logical and

The Government, whatever its rhetoric, is so far only dipping its toe
into biofuel solutions. That may be the right approach. Closer
examination of the policy recommends caution. One lesson can be drawn:
products and processes bearing the prefixes "eco" or "bio" cannot be
taken at face value.


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