Wrong answer to the wrong question

The media is in a tizz, Richard Branson is beaming from every orifice and coconut plantation owners are keeping their fingers crossed because a commercial airline has just flown the first flight to be powered partly by biofuels.

A Virgin Atlantic jumbo jet flew from London’s Heathrow and Amsterdam with one engine running on fuel made from Brazilian babassu nuts and coconuts.

Sir Richard claims it’s a major breakthrough in replacing fossil fuels, while GE Aviation, Boeing and other aviation companies are working to perfect the technology.

Various organisations like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are outraged, with some reason when you consider that 19.5 billion tonnes of aviation fuel was burned in the US alone in 2006. Where would that amount of biofuel come from?

But that’s not the point I want to make.

The question that’s often put is “should we use fossil fuels or biofuels and, if so, which biofuels can best replace fossil fuels?”.

In the case of aviation, the reason we need so much cheap fuel is to maintain our obsession with cheap travel so we can go where we like, when we like, for as little as possible.

If we try to maintain a vast supply of cheap fuel while simultaneously curbing fossil fuel use, then the only way it can be done is through converting vast swathes of food-growing land to biofuel production and clearing most of the world’s remaining forests and jungles.

Do we really want to cause food shortages and massive, direct environmental damage just to so we can continue travel cheaply?

If fossil fuel use needs to be curbed to reduce the impact of global warming, to make declining reserves last longer, or even just to cut smog in our cities, then why not simply stop travelling as much or as cheaply?

If replacing fossil fuels with biofuels is going to not only compound the problem, but worsen it, why go down that path at all?

It’s not a grey area. It’s not fuzzy. It’s not difficult.

If we’re running out of resources because we travel too readily and cheaply, then we should stay put.

If we do enormous, irrevocable damage because we pour pollutants into the environment when we travel, then we should stay where we are.

Biofuels are the wrong answer to the wrong question, “can we find a substitute for fossil fuels?”

The real question is “should we clear food crops and forests or should we clear our departure lounges”

It really is that simple.

4 Responses to “Wrong answer to the wrong question”

  1. I do tend to agree with a lot of what you say , But I feel that bio fuels have a place . of course its wrong for rain forest or prime agricultual land to be used to grow it . But and its a big but there is plenty of under used land . I would love and indeed hope to have a “Small small holding” in the west country yet every thing comming onto the market at 5 acres or less is an equestrian estate little is used for food production , nor can they be self sufficiant in keeping the horses they have on the land .

  2. Is it actually unused though? Even a rough upland field is used in many ways.

    Most biofuel crops, however, require prime agricultural land that’s reasonably flat to allow the most efficient planting, crop maintenance and harvesting, while delivering the maximum yield.

    On top of that, using so-called agricultural byproducts or waste to produce biofuels is a short-term and misguided use of those byproducts. Take straw, for example. If you remove straw from a farm to sell as biofuel feedstock, then you are actually removing fertility and organic material from the soil.

    Traditional farming practices recognise that — you bed animals on straw, stack the mucky straw and allow it to rot down, then return it to the soil to replace the fertility your crops have taken out.

    The only sustainable biofuels are those that use feedstocks that have already been used at least once for other purposes and would otherwise be a pollutant in themselves — chip fat being the most obvious example.

  3. There is a very big difference between what SHOULD be done and what WILL be done.

    It is unfortunate, but it is the truth. The solution is to travel less, but that is left to the individual, unless the airline industry, or governments (levy a tax) choose to raise prices to limit travel.

    There is no yes/no or right/wrong answer here…sorry!

  4. As long as people insist on taking their holidays in the Caribbean and other far flung exotic locations, I can’t really see things changing regardless of fuel type. Bio fuel will just mean that more land will be used to produce something that isn’t food while people continue to starve.

    When I was a kid (I’m starting to sound like my mother now), we were perfectly happy to go to Butlin’s or Pontin’s for our holidays and when my own kids were young (the youngest is 19 now so not that long ago, camping in the woods was considered a good holiday. Foreign holidays just never entered our minds. It seems that for every year that passes people just keep demanding more and more, never quite satisfied with what they already have, believing that they’ll only really enjoy life if they spend more money.

    At least Richard Branson is trying… I think.

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