Biofuels and the Globalization of Risk

(2010) James Smith

In writing this book, Smith sets his sights on more than just the consequences and risks, global and local, wrought by the (imprudent, he argues) adoption of biofuel technology and -policy.  His is also a deeper and more general meditation on the present Era’s faith in technology: “This narrow perspective, of looking to first-, second- and third-generation technologies to deal with the world that confronts us, blinds us to the teleologies that led us there in the first place.”  Biofuels present an ideal lens through which to cast light on this simple and profound observation.

Taking his cue from developments in Kenya, Malaysia, Indonesia and Tanzania, Smith sketches a bleak outlook on the ‘benefits’ that a biofuel future will bring to ‘developing’ countries where feedstock crops are and will be growing.  The book is subtitled, ‘The biggest change in North-South relationships since colonialism?’.  There are other times when Smith seems to overplay his hand:  “The biofuel assemblage, in its current configuration and through its current drivers, represents an examplar of a complex, tightly coupled system.  In fact, it represents possibly the most complex configuration of systems shaped by a modern technology.  The feedbacks, interactions and impacts are multilevel, multivariate and unprecedented in their implications.”  Or perhaps these are not overstatements after all, but a foreboding of things to come: between 2002 and 2006, biofuel production tripled and land-use quadrupled.  An increasing number of countries are enacting mandatory blending requirements, or otherwise promoting biofuels.  The European Union, for example, is committed to replacing 5.75% and 10% of its overall transport fuel supply with biofuel by 2015 and 2020, respectively (EU Directive 2003/30, 2008).

What consequences would such a segue have?  Part of the problem, and a major thrust of Smith’s book, is that we simply don’t know.  As is commonly the case in science, uncertainty is best revealed by a diversity of conclusions: for instance, estimates of the potential of bioenergy range from 10% to over 60% of global primary energy (Richard, 2010).  A 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions will require a factor 4 increase in bioenergy production, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA, 2008).  This calculation, sobering as it stands, is in fact highly optimistic, as it largely ignores the hugely important questions of land-use change and energy-return-on-energy-invested (EROEI).

Land-use change

There exists a tremendous danger that mounting demand for biofuel will incentivize the clearing of productive, biodiverse ecosystems in favour of high-input monoculture plantations.  In fact, that is exactly what is happening.  “Instead of working on the assumption that all biomass offsets energy emissions, biomass should receive credit to the extent to which its use results in additional carbon sequestration from enhanced plant growth (growing jatropha on previously unused land, for example), or from the use of residues or biowastes (using more efficient technologies)”, writes Smith.  Of course, the recurring problem with such ideas is one of transaction cost, especially costs associated with measurement and enforcement.  In ‘developing’ economies lacking expensive legislative infrastructure, such solutions have thus far proved unrealistic.  At best, they have had the effect of skewing opportunities further in favour of large multinational corporations enjoying benefits of scale, and away from the family farms they are supposedly benefiting.  Smith is well aware of all this, of course, noting that “[i]t is actually very difficult to suggest a simple approach to create better incentives.”


The EROEI is an important measure when it comes to biofuel crops, as it measures the actual energy output relative to the energy required to produce (seed, transplant, fertilize, irrigate, spray, harvest, transport, densify, preprocess, refine, …) a crop.  For most biomass types, it remains an open question just how feasible their use as a feedstock is (e.g. Larson, 2006).  Brazilian sugarcane (Saccahrum spp.), the target of concerted research and investment since the early 70’s, is a notable exception.  Today, it accounts for 20-25% bioethanol in Brazilian petrol blends.  Under Brazilian conditions, 50 to 150 tonnes of sugar cane can be harvested every 12 or 18 months (Ripoli et al., 2000).  In 2007, just over 22.4 billion (10^9) liters of ethanol, energetically equivalent to ~15 billion liters of (energy-denser) gasoline, were produced from sugar cane grown on ~3.4 million hectares of plantations.  Arguably, this provides the end-member of a workable first-generation biofuel feedstock: it is the best we can expect from biofuel for the coming decennium, at least.  (There is much to be said about the environmental and sociological impacts of these plantations, for which I refer you to de Araujo (2011) and others).

Global biomass volumes required to achieve a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. A wide range of densification options are possible, but even the most effective will still require several times the biomass-handling capacity that the commodity grain system uses today.  Source: Richard (2010).

And that’s if you’re Brazilian.  As a glance at the figure will reveal, the outlook for (much less energy-dense) second-generation lignocellulosic feedstocks in temperate latitudes (dedicated energy crops, crop residues, forests and organic wastes) are less rosy.  For these, Richard (2010) concludes that “[…] the combination of expected growth in energy demand and the lower density of biomass imply that by 2050, biomass transport volumes will be greater than the current capacity of the entire energy and agricultural commodity infrastructure”  [emphasis mine].  Note that Richard writes “will be“.  Smith concludes differently: “Biofuels, despite their promise, will never scale up enough to allow us to live as we currently live.  The laws of thermodynamics dictate this.  And that, too, might be no bad thing, in retrospect.”

I do not know which of these workers has a broader and deeper purview on the coming century.  But I do know this: approximately a billion people are currently classed as ‘hungry’ (FAO, 2009), and this figure is going to grow, alongside expanding biofuel plantations.



de Araujo, L.M., de Barros Prado Moura, F. (2011), ‘Bioethanol’s dirty footprint in Brazil’, Nature, 469, pp. 299.

Food and Agricultural Organization (2009), ‘The State of Food Insecurity in the World in 2009’, Rome.

International Energy Agency (2008), ‘Energy Technology Perspectives 2008—Scenarios and Strategies to 2050’, Paris, pp. 307–338.

Larson, E. (2006), ‘A review of life-cycle analysis studies on liquid biofuel systems for the transport sector’, Energy for Sustainable Development, X(2).

Richard, T.L. (2010), ‘Challenges in scaling up biofuels infrastructure’, Science, 329, pp. 793-796.

Rípoli, T.C.C., Molina Jr., W.F., Rípoli, M.L.C. (2010), ‘Energy potential of sugar cane biomass in Brazil’, Scientia Agricola, 57(4), pp. 677-681.

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