As a parable of our times the biofuels debate is brilliantly instructive. It seems that as soon as a ‘new’ technology comes along, the forces of environmental conservatism want to knock it down instantly, regardless of the facts or that some risk is inevitable in industrial activity.
It’s not that long ago that industry visionary Richard Parry-Jones was linking biofuels to long-term average tailpipe emissions of 40g/km within a couple of decades, while Bentley used the Geneva show to announce its backing for biofuels by future-proofing its models to accept the new fuel.
The US car industry has been pumping out ethanol capable cars in their hundreds of thousands for half a decade – and Brazil has been happily fuelling its entire car fleet on biofuel from sugar cane for thirty years. A third of Swedish cars are already biofuel capable, and the country plans to be completely independent of fossil fuels by 2030.
So what’s gone wrong in the UK?
It feels biofuels have become the chattering classes new bogeyman. If you believe the scare stories then biofuels will drive up the cost of food for the world’s poorest, cause more CO2 from their production than they save and cause the rain forests to be slashed-and-burned.
The truth is far less exciting. Second-generation biofuels are being made from waste green matter, such as the by-products of the food processing and timber industries.
Volkswagen, for example, has a shareholding in Iogen, a Canadian biotechnology company that
is developing a process that uses enzymes to turn timber waste and fast-growing grasses into ethanol.
Currently production is being proven in pilot plants, but there’s a chance industrial levels of production will be reached within the next decade.
Longer term, some biofuel visionaries would like to see vast growing areas created in Africa where the climate is suited to fast crop growing and the biofuels industry could bring long-term economic benefits.
So don’t believe the doom mongers: biofuels aren’t dead yet.