A backlash is brewing against the widening use of biofuels worldwide – targeting ethanol, made mostly from corn, and biodiesel, created largely with soybeans – as concerns about their impact on the global food supply and the environment continue to grow. Still, despite potential pitfalls, experts believe biofuels are going to remain an important alternative fuel for transportation needs in the future.

Professor Ed Gallagher, chairman of the Renewable Fuels Agency (RFA) in London, recently authored a report calling for the United Kingdom to slow down the introduction of biofuels into the country’s transportation industry until the full “indirect effects” of biofuel use are accounted for.

“The introduction of biofuels should be slowed until effective controls are in place to prevent land use change and higher food prices,” Gallagher said. “There is a future for a sustainable biofuels industry but creating the right policy framework is challenging and will take time.”

His study – released this week – concluded that current biofuel use policies, if left unchecked, would reduce biodiversity and may even cause greenhouse gas emissions rather than savings. “More caution and discrimination are needed in the feedstock used to produce biofuels,” he said. “Increasing demand for biofuels contributes to rising prices for some food commodities, notably oil seeds, that has a detrimental effect on the poor.”

As a result, Gallagher stressed that biofuels production must target idle and marginal land, and the use of wastes and residues and that specific incentives are needed to encourage advanced technologies that utilize feedstock grown on idle and marginal land. “This will avoid indirect land use change and reduce competition with food,” he noted.

"It is clearer than ever that we need to break our dependence on oil. To tackle climate change we will need to develop new, cleaner fuels – but that doesn't mean pushing forward indiscriminately on biofuels that may do more harm than good,” said Hillary Benn, the U.K.’s environment secretary.

“We need to proceed more cautiously than previously thought, but we should not give up on the potential for some biofuels to help us tackle climate change now and in the future,” Benn added. “This isn't just about our own targets here in the U.K. - we will be pressing hard in Europe to ensure that any future EU biofuels targets are also conditional on strong sustainability criteria which include the indirect impacts of producing them.”

Ruth Kelly, the U.K.’s transport secretary, added that her agency is slowing down the rate of increase in the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation so that the level of biofuels will increase to 5% by 2013/14, rather than by 2010/11. “We will continue to support the EU [European Union] target of 10% renewable transport fuels by 2020, but argue that the target is conditional on the evidence showing that it is being delivered sustainably and without significant impacts on food prices,” she said.

Still, the need for petroleum alternatives is growing fast, meaning biofuels must remain part of the alternative fuel equation, stressed Rob Routs, executive director-oil sands, oil products & chemicals for Royal Dutch Shell, at the Fifth Magdeburg Environmental Forum last week in Magdeburg, Germany.

“When I joined Shell 35 years ago, there were roughly four billion people in the world using the equivalent of 100 million barrels of oil daily. Today, there are 6.7 billion people using more than 228 million barrels of oil equivalent a day of primary energy,” Routs said. “By the middle of this century there could be nine billion people using twice as much energy. [At the same time] conventional oil and gas – staples of our energy diet today – are becoming harder to find and produce. There are still large amounts of hydrocarbons in the ground. But what’s left will take huge amounts of technology, energy, money and patience to get at it.”

This is why the world needs to find nearer term alternatives, which is where biofuels come in. “I think biofuels could grow from a mere 1% of the world fuels mix today to as much as 7% or 10% over the next couple of decades,” Routs said. “If not managed carefully, they can sometimes compete for land with food, consume a lot of water, or disrupt biodiversity or local cultures. We still need more innovations to lower the costs and raise the yields. We still need to learn more about sustainable production. We still need to develop markets and use them to scale up capacity.”

However, he believes these disadvantages could be overcome by next-generation biofuels, which are already starting to show promise. “These are biofuels that use non-food raw materials and that deliver CO2 [carbon dioxide] savings of as much as 90 % compared to conventional gasoline and diesel,” Routs noted. “ They are going to be a vital part of the fuels mix in the future.”

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