Biofuels will not save us from climate change, argues Matt Ridley. Their environmental impact is worse than that of fossil fuelsby Matt Ridley / December 14, 2011 / Leave a comment
From a satellite, the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic looks like the edge of a carpet. While the Dominican Republic is green with forest, Haiti is brown: 98 per cent deforested. One of the chief reasons is that Haiti depends on bioenergy. Wood—mostly in the form of charcoal—is used not just for cooking but for industry as well, providing 70 per cent of Haiti’s energy. In contrast, in the Dominican Republic, the government imports oil and subsidises propane gas for cooking, which takes the pressure off forests.
Haiti’s plight is a reminder there is nothing new about bioenergy. A few centuries ago, Britain got most of its energy from firewood and hay. Over the years the iron industry moved from Sussex to the Welsh borders to Cumberland and then Sweden in an increasingly desperate search for wood to fire its furnaces. Cheap coal and oil then effectively allowed the gradual reforestation of the country. Britain’s forest cover—12 per cent—is three times what it was in 1919 and will soon rival the levels recorded in the Doomsday Book of 1086.
Yet if the government has its way, we will instead emulate Haiti. In 2007, Tony Blair signed up to a European Union commitment that Britain would get 20 per cent of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. Apparently neither he nor his officials noticed this target was for “energy” not “electricity.” Since much energy is used for heating, which wind, solar, hydro and the like cannot supply, this effectively committed Britain to using lots of wood and crops for both heat and electricity to hit that target. David Cameron and Chris Huhne, anxious to seem the “greenest of them all,” dare not weaken the target, despite its unattainability. Biomass consumption in power stations was up 27 per cent in 2010 and “co-firing” (burning biomass alongside coal) was up 39 per cent. To replace coal, the government projects that by 2020 Britain will be generating electricity from burning up to 60m tonnes of biomass, mainly wood, about five times the timber harvest that Britain could conceivably produce. To replace oil, the European Union has set a target of making 10 per cent of our transport fuel renewable by 2020, which will mean mainly biodiesel made from rape, soybean and imported palm oil. To replace gas, a gold rush of developers is trying to build anaerobic digesters on farms, where…