Biofuels: All You Need to Know for a Bar Discussion

13 08 2007

From Saifedean Ammous on 3 quarks daily.

Over the last few years, there has been a tremendous increase in global interest in biofuels, a term that refers, broadly, to transportation fuels derived from biomass. Bill Gates, Richard Branson, British Petroleum, General Motors, most giant food companies, and countless other people and institutions haves dabbled in these fuels lately.

There is an enormous amount of news reports, analysis, discussion and media attention given to biofuels. One is first struck by the incredible variety of opinions expressed on the matter; from over the top excitement hailing biofuels as the answer to all of the world’s environmental, economic, social and political problems, to severe criticism that views biofuels as an ultimate evil that will have a profoundly negative impact on forestation, food supply, poor-country economics and just about everything else.

I have been researching this topic for a while, and will attempt to use this column to lay out the (very rough) outlines of the current state of thinking on biofuels—this is, more or less, the local-bar-discussion version of my knowledge of biofuels. I will attempt to provide a short (vastly over-generalized) assessment of the scientific literature on the issue, highlight future possibilities, and discuss how government policy is probably playing a negative role in this process—at least in two specific cases.

The biggest question in biofuels circles for the last few years has been concerning whether they are efficient or not (meaning: do they reduce our use of fossil fuels or use up more energy in their production than they give out when they are burned) and about what their environmental impacts might be. Dozens—if not hundreds—of studies have been done to assess these two questions and have arrived at conclusions so contradictory they may as well have been totally random guesses by children. I will not list those studies and attempt to critique them all, but will outline what I view as the conclusions drawn from assessing the most widely accepted and scrutinized results, dividing them by the type of biofuel assessed:

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