Pork and politics energise the biofuel delusion

Costly, counter-productive, eats all your food. What's not to like?

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Comment So, hands up everyone who thinks that determined political action is necessary to save us from the perils of climate change. Yes, hold them up for a moment...

Whooo, boy, didn't realise there were quite so many deluded people out there. The truth is that politics just doesn't work that way, it's not an efficient system for deciding upon technical matters and as such isn't the appropriate method of dealing with technical problems.

Think about what our Lords and Masters have actually done to try to deal with the problem: we've all got to use biofuels as of the beginning of April. Sure, to begin with it's only a few percent of the mix that has to be one or other of the varieties of ethanol: but more energy is generally used to produce ethanol than it delivers. In which case we're boiling the planet a little bit faster by using it than by burning the oil itself. The European Union, however, is insisting that in years to come 10 per cent (and then a mooted 20 per cent) of all vehicle fuels should come from this source: so, in order to deal with climate change we're to heat the planet faster. That's a pretty good result from political action, don't you think? (I must take a small detour and praise Alistair Darling here. Promise it's the only time I will do so. In the last budget he removed the tax breaks for biodiesel on the grounds that it is no better - at the very best - than the regular type.)

Now this isn't just me saying such awkward things: even Friends of the Earth and George Monbiot are now on board: burning up millions of acres of Indonesian peat bog in order to grow palm oil is worse than pumping oil. Increasing the use of arable land to grow corn or wheat (yes, and even switch grass) to convert doesn't compute either. If you left the land alone to grow trees then you would conserve more CO2 emissions than you would by not pumping oil.

The thing is, all of this has been known (although not believed) for at least a decade, since David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell University, started pointing out the obvious. In 2002 he argued that the balance was negative, in 2005 he showed that it was too costly, and that even the 'greenness' of Brazil's sugar cane was dubious, while he attacked the rush to corn and biomass just last week.

So if the facts were out there, why did the politicians carry on with this nonsense? Because, and I'm sorry to have to break this painful news to you, politics isn't about solving problems, it's about appeasing interest groups. Outfits like processing combine Archers Daniel Midlands and the corn farming lobby in the US could see a great boondoggle coming down the pike, so they leapt aboard it. There's a subsidy of 50 cents a gallon on ethanol: and there's also a tariff on Brazilian ethanol derived from sugar because even with that taxpayer handout it would undercut the produce of the farmers in the first State in each election cycle to choose a candidate (the Iowa cacuses are the start of the whole presidential rigmarole). And anyone who's ever looked at the EU accounts and CAP will know that the farm lobby here is not exactly weak.

Add in a few credulous green types (ooooh! Look! It's renewable, must be good. And no nasty oil companies involved!) and we've got the critical mass necessary to enact laws whatever the actual state of the science. But as I say, this is how politics works.

Even if you find Pimentel's work unconvincing (it's a complicated enough field that one can indeed argue) how about this report from the Royal Society? The one in which they discuss something very important indeed about fertilisers. We and the IPCC have all been working on the idea that some 1 per cent of the nitrogen used ends up in the atmosphere. In fact, it looks like it's 3-5 per cent. As NOx is 296 times more of a global warming gas than CO2 itself, this casts further doubt on the entire idea of growing our fuel, assuming that we fertilise it.

But it's not just big business grubbing for tax dollars that perverts the system for its own ends. It's interest groups that do, not just business. Take, as an example, the insistence that we should all recycle instead of throw things into landfill. Sure, some recycling makes great sense: might as well pop that gold tooth out of grandpa before you bury him, just as you're not going to throw away granny's gold jewelry. Aluminium cans are similarly profitable to recycle. But we've now got to the stage where we're told we must compost our food wastes rather than landfill, for when it rots it will produce methane. Indeed it will, but since the 2004 Landfill Act we've been collecting that methane and using it to generate energy, so why the interest in recycling and composting? Because there are people who want us to compost for other reasons, the emissions part just being the clue stick they can beat us with.

In fact, we can go further, and point out that composting produces more greenhouse gases than landfill. Yes, really. Worm farts are NOx, as we know, a gas 296 times worse than CO2. The methane produced by landfills is only 23 times worse. The total volumes of both gases mean that in CO2-e terms, the effect of each process is the same. However, we collect some 75 per cent of the methane from landfills and convert it to CO2, creating energy we can use in the process. Worm farts are of no use except as something for worm teenagers to snigger about. Thus the wormeries are worse for the planet than landfills.

And yet we are being urged, subsidised even from the tax revenues, to create wormeries. Why is anything so wildly counter-productive being done?

Because, as I've said, politics isn't about solving problems. It's about appeasing interest groups. And there are those who think you should be stirring worms rather than waving your rubbish off to be commercially disposed of: presumably you're not worshipping Gaia in the correct manner, not in touch with your inner peasant. But whatever their reasoning they are an interest group and they are using politics to advance their agenda: to the detriment unfortunately of the rest of us.

No, pure free markets (and remember, I'm the man from the Adam Smith Institute) don't deal well with externalities, especially when the transaction costs are high as they are here with the atmosphere. But if you think politics is going to save us instead then you've simply not been paying attention. ®

Tim Worstall knows more about rare metals than most might think wise, and writes for himself at timworstall.com, and for The Business, among others. He is a Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute.

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