We should not look to biofuels if we want to tackle climate change

By Peter Brabeck-Letmathe

29 November 2012 See comments (7)

Are biofuels doing more harm than good? It is a question that stays on the agenda, and I ask my readers to provide their views and facts. This week’s discussions at Doha remind us that tackling climate change can be as complex as it is important.

One such complexity relates to the unintended, negative consequences of well-intended solutions such as biofuels - one of the most divisive and controversial environmental policies.

This is a subject that I have written about several times before on this blog and one that I will be debating next week at the European Parliament during a high level discussion organised by the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

The event, entitled A Global Perspective on Biofuel, specifically aims to explore state-supported biofuels with a view to developing a ‘politically feasible, economically expedient and environmentally sound mix of policies’ based on the experience of major biofuel producers, particularly those in the European Union.

Taking each of these three dimensions – the political, the economic and the environmental - in turn goes some way to revealing why the problem with biofuels is so multi-faceted. This is also well summarised in the report Cultivating Governance: Cautionary tales for biofuel policy reformers, sponsored by Nestlé and published to coincide with the event.

Firstly, from a political standpoint, there can often be a ‘mismatch’ between a given government’s “officially adopted objectives” for supporting biofuels through subsidies and blending mandates, and the ‘Realpolitik’ that sits behind it. This disconnection can arise from acting in the ruling party’s self-interest by using subsidies to gain political support among key groups necessary for a government’s survival, such as rural constituencies or “green” alliances, which in some cases have been strengthened by virtue of collecting subsidies together.


This ‘mismatch’ can also emerge from governments’ misguided attempts to act in what it considers to be the national interest by using subsidies to support domestic agriculture against international trade.

Yet economically, this approach can backfire since subsidies are by definition national, whereas markets are increasingly global. As a result, biofuels produced in the EU are often less competitively priced than those produced in the United States or developing countries. Countries can consequently find themselves producing more biofuel than can either sell or consume.

However, the most worrying consequences of a global biofuel policy guided by Realpolitik concerns its negative environmental and social impacts. As I have written previously, up to 9,100 litres of water are required to produce one litre of biodiesel, according to a study of the US Department of Energy. With increasing pressures on freshwater use, and the vital role played by water in growing food crops, this is not only astonishingly inefficient but immoral. The impact of biofuel subsidies on food is further aggravated by country mandates. In the US, for example 40% of corn production now goes towards ethanol.


One effect of this is to push up food prices, or in the words of the report, to “stage a unique experiment [that tests] existing relationships in the commodity markets”.  But this relationship is not one we can afford to experiment with, since food is not a commodity like rubber or copper; it is a vital staple on which people depend for survival.

Moreover, since a higher share of staple food in diets correlates with people on lower incomes, it is typically poorer consumers that are most severely affected by rising food prices (Peter Menzel and Faith d’Alusio; Hungry Planet; Material World Books, Napa/Cal. 2007).

All these reasons highlight the fact that biofuels are not a ‘first-best’ option for mitigating climate change. They are at best a second-rate solution, creating deeper problems than they alleviate.

To deepen our understanding of the full range of these potential impacts, further research is required.

However, the Precautionary Principle, which is binding for all countries that have signed and ratified the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, states that "when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause-effect relationships are not fully established scientifically". Up to now, it appears that the precautionary principle has been more often applied against the interest of the socially weak (Golden Rice, DDT).

Therefore, as we continue to collect further evidence of the unintended consequences of biofuels, we should not forget our obligations to good governance nor abandon our pursuit of better alternatives to tackling the challenge of global warming.

  1. Joseph Asynyka @ Afrimission

    30 Nov 2012 - 22:06 (GMT)

    Jatropha is non food staple raw material for biofuel production.

  2. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe @ Nestlé

    03 Dec 2012 - 16:53 (GMT)

    Dear Mr Asynyka
    Thanks for your comment. I am not against biofuels in general, there are good variants like biofuels from waste and manure, for instance. You also make a good point in mentioning jatropha. What we should always consider is the amount of freshwater needed to grow the material for biofuel and be realistic about how much it will contribute to overall energy supply and CO2 reduction.
    Best regards,

  3. oladele oluwafemi @ Nill

    01 Dec 2012 - 14:58 (GMT)

    Climate change is happening. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that the cause is emissions of greenhouse gases from human activity. These constantly increasing emissions are responsible for an increase in temperatures, which is expected to continue over the coming decades to reach 1.4° to 5.8° Celsius globally by the year 2100 (compared to 1990 temperatures) according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

    On the basis of an analysis of the effects of climate change and the costs and benefits of action in this area, the Commission recommends that a number of elements should be included in the EU's future climate change strategy.Elements of a climate change strategy

    A strategy to combat climate change represents a four-fold challenge: the climate risk itself and the political will to face up to it, international participation in efforts to tackle climate change, the innovation needed for changes in the production and use of energy, and adaptation of countries to the unavoidable effects of climate change.

    Accordingly, any strategy should include:
    extension of action against climate change to all the polluting countries (with common but differentiated responsibilities) and sectors involved (all modes of transport, deforestation etc.);
    enhanced innovation, which includes the implementation and deployment of existing technologies and the development of new technologies (in particular by means of active support policies which take advantage of normal capital replacement);
    use and development of market-based instruments (such as the emissions trading system introduced by the EU);
    harnessing of preventive and remedial efforts to adapt to climate change based on the most affected regions and economic sectors.I really love this debate,hope to see more of it.Thanks.

  4. Mike Muller @ Witwatersrand University

    08 Dec 2012 - 20:19 (GMT)

    It would be helpful to avoid polarising the discussion unnecessarily.

    There are a number of agricultural systems that can produce food and fibre as well as energy - think of sugar and forestry, for example. Such systems can offer enhanced livelihoods for more people than simple crop production and it can be done in a sustainable manner.

    But I fully agree that "monocrop" biofuels can have negative impacts. The challenge in many countries is how to obtain optimum benefits (production, livelihoods and environmental sustainability) from available natural resources, human endowments and markets.

  5. Aung @ Nestle Purina Petcare

    18 Dec 2012 - 19:37 (GMT)

    Mr. Brabeck,

    I completely agree with you in the sense that most biofuels cause more harm than good and this can be clearly seen through the example of ethanol. Ethanol is primarily produced from corn and the amount of effort and resources that go into producing corn and maintaining it can be very stressful both environmentally and economically.

    This is a very complex topic and debate that you are trying to address Mr. Brabeck as numerous factors are involved and interrelated. It appears as if you cannot gain without losing. While the production of corn involves the consumption of a great deal of water supply, the end result is a cleaner source of fuel than oil. There can be arguments made from both perspectives; however, I believe that the negatives outweigh the positives much more.

    In parts of the US alone, nineteen gallons of water is required for one bushel of corn and can go upwards of over hundreds of gallons (more depending on the region and the condition of the land). On top of biofuels aiding in the speed of water depletion, the quality of land is also put into jeopardy. Government subsidies are also contributing to the negative effects that biofuels have on land. By granting subsidies, farmers and corporations are turning to mass production of these crops without taking into consideration the negative impacts it has on the environment. Without creating a proper agenda to sustain resources at hand and prevent further environmental damage, food prices will continue to rise forcing the mass population to turn to more affordable sources of energy such as oil. As long as this occurs, biofuels will not be marketable to the mass.

    I strongly believe that the best way to obtain the most benefit from biofuels is to invest in creating better technology and refining processes that will not only help bring down the cost of biofuels significantly so that it is affordable, but will help preserve the environment as well. Governments should grant subsidies only to regions around the world where the land is most suitable for the production of resources required for biofuels. This will result in the minimizing the amount of water required for the production of these resources, prevent creating infertile lands and hopefully maintain or reduce the cost of food and the cost of living.

    I focused primarily on ethanol but as you already responded in your statement above, there are great sources of biofuels such as from waste and manure. Would it be fair to say that the greatest source of energy for the future is focusing on energy sources that do not require any type of production but rather harnessing? Such as solar, wind and electric? And, what are your inputs on government subsidies and the impacts it has on the environment?

    Thank you for your blog and addressing such important topics.

  6. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe @ Nestle

    19 Dec 2012 - 12:47 (GMT)

    Dear Aung,

    Many thanks for your excellent comment. I agree with many of your points, particularly the need for a suitable agenda to sustain resources beyond energy and CO2, and also the need for a proper cost benefit analysis and clearer view on externalities.

    With reference to your questions: there are indeed opportunities to generate bioenergy from waste. At Nestlé, we are helping farmers to build biogesters to transform manure into gas and dry fertiliser, protecting instead of using freshwater resources. But remember the enormous size of global energy markets – in Kcal close to 20 times the size of food markets. So the impact, even if positive, will be marginal.

    At the same time I am also convinced that in some regions of the world we will come to a point where solar and wind energy will actually cover the whole cost (i.e., including the necessary schemes for temporary storage of energy and for grids). But I have some doubt whether we can afford 4.8 trillion subsidies up to 2035 for alternative energies (estimate sourced from the International Energy Agency, IEA, see chart) at a time when governments are in a deep debt crisis, a crisis that will further deteriorate due to demographics. And 2035 will not be the end. According to IEA, there will be a continued need for subsidies close to the tune of USD 250 billion per year.



  7. Juerg Duerig @ R&D Nestle Singapore

    28 Mar 2013 - 03:53 (GMT)

    Mr. Brabeck

    1911 french engineers were demonstrating that with peanut oil a diesel engine runs perfectly well. We have to differentiate between the ethanol based benzine engine and the raw oil diesel engine. Ethanol based fuel consumes a lot of water, refined oil much less. Refined vegetable oils can be used directly to substitute diesel in any diesel engine with a whirl chamber. I am pretty sure with further development we can use vegetable oil also in TDI engines.
    Today most governments subsidise agricultural production. Subsidies distort world trade, endanger environment, foster corruption and are highly inefficient. Abandoning subsidies and growing crops for fuel would lead to higher market prices for vegetable oil that would trigger more plantations for fuel and create more income for farmers and improve the situation of todays unskilled workers.
    The plantations need to be multiculture in three levels, "root - bush - tree". The three levels planted on the same plot, of course accessible and arranged for better harvesting, gives a bit less yield per culture than a monoculture but has a permanent stream of yield, needs less pesticide, fungicide and fertiliser is suitable for manual labor and prevents erosion. This principle has been proven by the Swiss development aid 1970 in Ruanda.
    Coming back to the scarce resources, Nigeria for instance can grow 2.5kg biomass per squaremeter per year. Assuming the 913'000km2 of Nigeria alone would be used growing biomass then all 7bio people could be served everyday with 900g biomass from Nigeria alone. Taking into consideration the advancing desert and urban areas, reducing the area to 25% it is still 230g/head/day and that is Nigeria alone. Taking into consideration the unused arable land in Africa, Asia, Europe, America growing crops for fuel is an absolute feasible solution.
    How much fuel do we need to produce? Palmoil yields per hectar 6000kg, an average car makes 15'000km/year and cosumes around 10lts/100km - 1500lts/year, keeping simple figures to show the magnitude. One hectar, 100mx100m, can produce the need of fuel for 4 cars. The 2mio cars in Switzerland would need 500'000ha or 5'000km2 a square of 70km x 70km, Bern - Aarau - Luzern - Thun- Bern (we cant grow palmtrees in Switzerland we would use rapeseed, with less yield, it's just to show the magnitude)
    Growing crops can be done by anyone, no special knowledge is needed. Growing crops for fuel if used as vegetable oil in diesel engines is a chance for developed and developing countries to get rid of the damaging agriculture subsidies, to create employment for more people, to create value in the country, to reduce foreign currency dependency and to spiral out of poverty. Biofuel is CO2 neutral and the most democratic fuel ever generated, it is a chance if tackled properly, but we need the expertise of the developed countries to give developing countries, in particularly Africa a chance to solve their problems. Biofuel is the best development aid since it generates revenues at the grass root.
    Best regards

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