Biofuels in the sub-prime carbon market?

28 April 2008

Triggered by a thread of letters on Biofuels, Dr Richard Pike, RSC Chief Executive, sent this letter which was published in The Times today, emphasising the need for a more quantitative approach to science.


Three fundamental issues underlie the looming crisis over the effectiveness and desirability of biofuel projects worldwide.

First, governments have focused solely on the apparent benefits of the liquid fuel, itself, rather than considering the full life-cycle carbon footprint of its production and delivery to market, as well as other more holistic implications.

Flawed decisions were then reinforced by subsidies that distorted the market, and encouraged farmers to embark on projects that will have limited, or even negative, overall benefit to the environment.

Finally, these errors have been compounded by newly-emerging carbon trading schemes. Fossil-fuel projects and activities are progressing on the basis that their carbon dioxide emissions will be offset by 'savings' attributable to biofuel projects elsewhere in the world.

The latter are now likely to under-perform significantly, with promises unfulfilled, and in the extreme represent the junk bonds of the sub-prime carbon market. The outcome will be still greater emissions into the atmosphere.

Many governments still lack the skills and the mechanisms for thorough evidence-based decision-making, which would help reduce the risk of such blunders. In the UK we need more rigour throughout the educational system, greater engagement between disciplines, and bold scientific leadership to address what will be increasingly complex issues in the future. 

Emphasis on the quantitative aspects of science should no longer be an option, but an essential part of our upbringing.

Dr Richard Pike
Chief Executive, Royal Society of Chemistry 

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