Biofuels policy: Public debate and scientific review


The world faces the daunting combination of surging energy demand, rising greenhouse gas emissions and tightening resources. A global energy technology revolution is both necessary and achievable; but it will be a tough challenge”. This is how Nobuo Tanaka, Executive Director of the IEA,  summed up the task faced by the world over the next 40 years, at the launch of the latest edition of Energy Technology Perspectives (ETP) last week

Setting out a vision for 2050, Tanaka makes clear the scale of the challenge for biofuels – “In addition to [decarbonisation of the power sector] we would also have to make an eightfold reduction of the carbon intensity of the transport sector. This represents the most difficult and costly step due to the ongoing rapid demand growth and limited potential based on existing technology”

In a year in which biofuels have been at the centre of two heated public debates – on sustainability, and on food prices – it is helpful to be reminded of this long term imperative, and the need for strong, consistent and scientifically based policies to support the biofuel technology revolution.

The debate on sustainability was ignited in January by a series of articles including those by Searchinger and Fargione, and in the UK by the EAC and Royal Society reports, but has since taken on a life of its own. Similarly, the connection between global food prices and global biofuel production, based on the observation that both are increasing, has become a staple for headlines and placards across the world. The disregarded fact that increasing global demand for meat (and hence grain feedstuffs) and erratic agricultural output accounts for the majority of the recent price spike seems to have been lost in the noise.

Yet as the public debate continues, UK government policy awaits the outcome of a more measured and scientific review by the RFA.  

Led by Professor Ed Gallagher, and due to report in the next few weeks, the RFA review intends to address both sustainability and food price impacts of biofuels by considering:  

    • Global drivers, pressures and availability of land and the effect of current and future demand and production scenarios for biofuels
    • GHG emissions arising from land-change and cultivation of biofuels and uncertainties in science and methodologies
    • Drivers of rising food commodity prices and effects upon food security

Public debate is an essential part of a healthy political process, raising concerns that challenge the status quo or present policy direction, and highlighting issues that require considered action. But it can also be prejudiced, fickle and reactionary; it prefers a good headline to a robust scientific argument; and it has a habit of presenting recycled conjecture as fact.

In the next round of biofuels policy development, the conclusions of the RFA, and of the other scientific reviews ongoing elsewhere in Europe and around the world will, it is to be hoped, carry considerably more weight than the heated public debate that will no doubt continue.


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