The Royal Institute of International Affairs, commonly known in the UK as Chatham House, has published and circulated a report entitled The Trouble with Biofuels: Costs and Consequences of Expanding Biofuel Use in the United Kingdom. GallonDaily would dismiss this report as just another uninformed attack on the quest for a low carbon economy except that Chatham House has a substantial program on Energy, Environment and Resources and has been a leader in discussions about Climate Security and Low Carbon Growth. So what is going on here?
Although it has been hailed in some media as an in-depth look at biofuels, the Chatham House report is actually a fairly shallow analysis that focuses significantly on the economic cost of biofuels and is carefully hedged throughout with phrases such as “the current generation of biofuels” and “current biofuel standards do not ensure biofuel use is sustainable”.
New products and new technologies often have teething problems. Indeed, it would be unusual if a technology as recent as biofuels did not have some economic and environmental challenges in its early years. In the absence of funding for massive government research to perfect a new technology before introducing it to the mrket we can only overcome the challenges, or decide to scrap biofuels in favour of another low carbon alternative, if we try out the new biofuel products in the marketplace and tweak the approaches and the regulatory environment to get things right.
The Chatham House report is not nearly as negative on biofuels as its title suggests but it contains no recommendations on biofuel alternatives for transportation and only very weak recommendations on the government policies needed to help make biofuels more economically and environmentally efficient.
In summary, Chatham House finds that:
- Biofuel use in the United Kingdom is set to increase significantly despite continued sustainability concerns
- Current biofuel standards do not ensure biofuel use is sustainable
- Biofuels are not a cost-effective means to reduce emissions from road transport
Unless Chatham House or some other body can come up with a clear and effective strategy for substantially reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, or unless humans decide to stop moving themselves and their freight around the country and around the world, biofuels, though imperfect, may be one of the better things we can do to reduce GHG emissions in the transportation sector at the present time.
Chatham House has not been helpful either to the debate or to the development of low carbon transportation technology. You can find their opinion or, more correctly, their staff person’s opinion, at http://www.chathamhouse.org/publications/papers/view/190783