IAS Fellow's Seminar
Speaker: Professor Patricia Harvey
Chair: Professor Michael O'Neill
Title: Biofuels - where do we go from here?
The term "biofuels" represents a wide spectrum of different types of energy carrier - from bioethanol to carbohydrate - with a myriad of applications able to power complex high-energy societies, from transportation through to food and feed. In the present climate biofuels are attractive because they are derived from plant biomass which is formed by capturing solar energy and combining this with CO2 to make carbohydrates and thence other forms of energy-dense polymers. But they sit at the centre of a conundrum. They require land, water and nutrients and, with the global population continuing to increase (~1.5% per annum) they increasingly need to be seen as precious resources. Which way (fuel as food or fuel for e.g. transport) should biofuels be used to meet the increased energy demand made by the world's different societies? And for a given scenario, what parameters should be measured in the decision-making process as to whether to invest in a biofuel or in an energy carrier from a different renewable primary energy source (geothermal / tidal/other solar transformation)? The situation is further compounded by the escalating twin demands for transportation energy, and for energy-dense sources of food protein (meat) from among increasingly prosperous people in China and India and developing societies in general. There is also increasing realisation that whole sectors of society remain without access to secure sustainable and affordable energy, which is an essential component of achieving the Millennium Development Goals, and a prerequisite for sustainable development in developing countries. The majority of Africans for example lack direct access to modern and affordable fuels, such as gas, electricity and solar power. Biofuels could offer these countries some prospect of self-reliant energy supplies at national and local levels with potential economic, ecological, social and security benefits. And there is a scenario of 'peak water' on the horizon, which has major food security implications for continental Africa and other arid, water-poor regions.
A large part of the solution would seem to be to change our attitude as to how we use energy and our resources. But biofuels have also attracted a vast collection of 'myths, misplaced hopes, and uninformed fervour' which has not helped rational debate. There are also many promising biofuel initiatives that have been formulated but struggled to get off the ground. Examination of case studies from Africa and the UK suggests that where we are today is not a consequence of the lack of investment in research, or the subsequent development of technology per se; the main reasons rather lie in the lack of suitable mechanisms for technologies to be selected, adapted, and implemented within a given physical, economic, political, and social context such that the human factor in the decision-making process is minimised.