Bjorn Lomborg: The Great Biofuels Scandal

  • Date: 17/12/13
  • Bjorn Lomborg, Daily Telegraph

Biofuels are inefficient, cause hunger and air pollution, and cost taxpayers billions.

Last week, the EU missed an opportunity to end the most wasteful green programme of our time – one which costs billions of pounds annually and causes at least 30 million people to go hungry every year. By failing to agree a cap on the use of biofuels, the Council of Ministers has given tacit support for a technology that is bad for both taxpayer and environment. Legislation will now be delayed until 2015.

The biofuel story is a perfect example of good intentions leading to terrible outcomes. Moreover, it is a lesson on how powerful, pseudo-green vested interests can sustain a bad policy. Hopefully, it will also be a story of how reason can prevail in the divisive climate debate.

Greens initially championed biofuels as a weapon against global warming, claiming they would emit much less CO2 than fossil alternatives. As plants soak up CO2 while growing, the subsequent combustion simply releases the CO2 back into the air, resulting in zero net emissions.

But the dream has become a nightmare, as environmentalists turn against it. Even Al Gore claims biofuels are a “mistake”.

Studies show that as land is dedicated to energy crops, land for food is simply taken from other areas – often forests – leading to substantial CO2 emissions. And processing biofuels emits CO2, drastically reducing benefits.

In the EU, crop-based biofuels have replaced 5 per cent of fuel used in transport. If the biofuels were emission-free, that would reduce emissions by 5 per cent – totalling about 59 million tons (Mt) of CO2 each year by 2020.

But a 2013 study by the International Institute for Sustainable Development shows that deforestation, fertilisers and fossil fuels used in the production of biofuels would emit about 54Mt of CO2. A full 92 per cent of the carbon dioxide “saved” is just emitted elsewhere. For biodiesel alone, the net effect would likely be an increase in emissions.

Thus the total EU savings would be a minuscule 5Mt, or about one-tenth of one per cent of total European emissions. Even over a century, the effect of these savings would be trivial. When run in a standard climate model, EU biofuel use will postpone global temperature rises by 2100 by just 58 hours.

And the cost to taxpayers is some £6 billion a year; each ton of CO2 avoided costs about £1,200. The EU’s “cap and trade” system is estimated to cost less than £4 for each ton avoided – so we pay almost 300 times too much.

Moreover, the best economic estimates suggest that cutting a ton of CO2 emissions saves the world about £4 in environmental damage. So for each pound spent on biofuels, we avoid about a quarter of one penny of climate damage –an extremely inefficient way to help the world.

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