Bad rap

Element - - Primary Industries -

In re­cent years bio­fu­els have be­come per­haps one of the best demon­stra­tions that there is no such thing as a free lunch. With the twin jaws of Peak Oil and cli­mate change be­gin­ning to bite, the idea of switch­ing to bio­fu­els seemed like an ideal so­lu­tion to both.

But the re­al­ity was some­what more com­plex. For ex­am­ple, con­vert­ing corn to ethanol has be­come one of the ma­jor sources of al­ter­na­tive fu­els, par­tic­u­larly in the US. But the con­cern is that it is be­ing used in cars as an al­ter­na­tive to feed­ing peo­ple. Heav­ily sub­sidised ethanol pro­duc­tion in the US ac­counted for just over a quar­ter of all the corn grown there last year, with the re­sult of push­ing up world­wide corn prices and di­vert­ing cheap US grain to ethanol in the mid­dle of re­cur­ring global food crises. Sens­ing a gold rush, Brazil and other de­vel­op­ing coun­tries have in­creased corn pro­duc­tion, lead­ing to in­creased de­for­esta­tion and in­creas­ing com­pe­ti­tion be­tween lo­cal food and ex­port dol­lars there too. In 2007, this led to ri­ot­ing in Mex­ico as the price of the sta­ple tor­tillas spi­raled up­ward.

Even non-ed­i­ble plants used for bio­fu­els have hit trou­ble. The hardy Ja­t­ropha plant was hailed as per­fect for bio­fuel pro­duc­tion as it can be grown on mar­ginal ground and is pest and drought re­sis­tant. But it can also be grown in huge plan­ta­tions at the ex­pense of food or for­est and has been re­ported to have driven farm­ers in the de­vel­op­ing world to bank­ruptcy as they banked on easy re­turns that have not ma­te­ri­alised.

While the ethanol in­dus­try con­tin­ues to be a ma­jor global player, the lat­est developments have shifted to al­ter­na­tive sources like food waste, wood waste and al­gae, all ar­eas in which ma­jor New Zealand clean tech com­pa­nies like Lan­za­t­ech, Aquaflow and Scion have a great deal of ex­per­tise and ex­pe­ri­ence.

How­ever, these too are not with­out their chal­lenges, and the great­est chal­lenge of all may be to sig­nif­i­cantly re­duce the amount of liq­uid fu­els be­ing used world­wide.

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