Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140
TUESDAY 20 NOVEMBER 2007
CBE AND DR
Q140 Dr Turner: Professor Clift,
are there any of the biofuels currently available and in use that
you would consider to be genuinely sustainable and genuinely beneficial
Professor Clift: Very, very small
proportions. I am prepared to believe that the development of
the Jatropha sector in Malawi has been beneficial to the economy
of Malawi and the people of Malawi. It is never going to be an
export crop, it is an import substitution. However, set against
that, I am quite concerned that the more widespread development
of Jatropha as a secondary biodiesel fuel could cause serious
disruption. I am not alone, as I am sure you are aware. There
are development organisations in India that are trying to suppress
the development of the Jatropha sector. It is a structural problem.
We are in a period where energy prices are high, food prices are
arguably artificially low, growing energy crops link the two and
if you are a farmer in Tamil Nadu, for example, you are likely
to be tempted to go over to energy crops because you are going
to get a better price for them, which, of course, reduces food
production. As part of the readjustments globally which are going
to be necessary, in my assessment food prices have to go up to
be more in line with current energy prices. I hope in that readjustment
not too much land is taken out of food production and put into
energy crops because the effect could be globally disastrous.
Q141 Dr Turner: What about sugarcane
bioethanol, assuming no displacement?
Professor Clift: I assume you
know about the ILOInternational Labour Officestudy
on labour practices in the Brazilian ethanol industry. Social
benefit and decent working conditions are part of sustainability
and, frankly, I do not think the Brazilian industry meets that.
You might be able to find a few that do, but they are not large.
Professor Bateman: I am willing
to accept there is a small carbon benefit in that particular scheme
you are talking about. It has a number of attractions. It is relatively
local and they use the sugarcane at two different stages in the
refining process. I think the one area of sustainability of that
particular initiative which has not been looked at carefully enough
is soils, which was my original research speciality. It is not
at all clear to me that those sugarcane plantations are going
to be sustainable longer term. I think there is a displacement
issue, even if it has not shown itself particularly clearly yet.
Q142 Colin Challen: The market pressures
we have heard about this morning, do you think there is any realistic
prospects of internationally achieving some kind of effective
environmental-based land-use strategy?
Professor Clift: History does
not encourage me. I am thinking of the FSC as a good example.
If you look at the discussion document on certification of biofuels,
it makes quite clear that the FSC is the best developed certification
scheme in this area, yet we all know it is not very effective.
Dr Spracklen: It is virtually
impossible to ensure that biofuel use is not going to displace
agriculture into natural ecosystems. As soon as that happens,
any carbon benefit from growing a biofuel is lost immediately.
If this is the case, then I think the argument for biofuels instantly
Q143 Colin Challen: From that I guess
I can take it probably that you all agree there should be a moratorium
on the expansion and perhaps the existing use of biofuels. Would
you extend it to the existing use or merely the expansion?
Professor Clift: Where there are
processing plants built I would probably let them run, as I indicated
earlier on. You get best energy benefit from any crop when you
reduce the amount of processing, so where we have land which is
there producing energy crops I would look for a crop which really
does not need to be converted into anything else. You lose more
than half the energy content in the process of turning it into
a liquid. In a lot of crop cases you lose way ahead of that. Just
use the stuff without processing.
Professor Bateman: I would advocate
continuing existing schemes simply because we are gathering useful
data. While they remain relatively small scale, of course they
are advantageous. My greater concern is that where there are alternative
biofuels which might have very strong benefits and very strong
debits, there is insufficient research going on into those biofuels
at the present time. For example, one thing that began to interest
me more and more as I researched this particular topic was microbial
biofuels. In theory, microbial growth is the more efficient kind
we have available to us, particularly if photosynthesis is involved.
There is relatively little research or interest in that particular
area at the moment. If we are talking about second or even third
generation biofuels, I am very much in favour of limited experimentation
taking place. It is the phrase "biofuels industry" that
I find difficult. I think it is too soon for that.
Q144 Colin Challen: On that issue,
which you heard me raise before about the marketing of these products,
where we do have this limited use of these new fuels, should they
be constrained only to the development of new technologies to
go along with them? Do you see there is a problem tying them with
the continued use of fossil fuels? Is that a concern you would
Professor Clift: I am finding
it quite difficult to answer that. Each individual biofuel has
a number of technologies which can exploit it. There are certain
technological developments which I think are essential for a rational
bioenergy sector to develop, but they are not particularly sexy.
What the world needs far more than technologies to turn solid
biofuels into liquids would be a relatively small scale reliable
combined heat and power process. Frankly, we do not have one of
those at the moment and I will believe we have when I meet someone
who has operated one and says, "Yes, it does work and it
is reliable". That will be far more beneficial, albeit it
is lower technology and therefore does not attract the sort of
capital and engineering interest which it merits.
Dr Spracklen: The other concern
with liquid biofuels is that they do not target other greenhouse
gases, such as ozone or black carbon, which would be targeting
increasing efficiency in cars or moving to electric vehicles,
for instance. There is increasing evidence that targeting black
carbon, that is soot emissions from cars, would be the fastest
way to reduce global warming in a very short-term, for example
the next ten years or so, and biofuels do not do that.
Q145 Chairman: On the question of
technologies, what is the potential for second generation biofuels,
Professor Clift: I would say limited.
There are certain niches, Jatropha in Malawi is an example. The
thing I find problematic about second generation biofuels is the
assumption that there are large quantities of waste agricultural
material lying around waiting to be processed. My argument is
if you have got surplus straw, use it as a source of heat or maybe
combined heat and power that is efficient use. If there is surplus
straw anywhere, it is going to be somewhere with a large production
of grain crops and a small population density and that defines
Saskatchewan. If you look at what has happened in Saskatchewan,
it used to have a low input wheat cultivation system because 80%
or so of the straw was ploughed back in to restore the carbon,
nitrogen and phosphorus. What has happened over the last few years
is that agricultural inputs into wheat production in Saskatchewan
have shot up. These inputs include potash, and it came to my attention
because the share value of Saskatchewan Potash has gone up hugely
over the last two years, and on investigation that is why. The
nitrate inputs are going to increase nitrous oxide emissions,
which was the qualitative point Crutzen was making. If anyone
has done the sums over whether taking straw out of Saskatchewan
to turn it into liquid biofuels has been beneficial in greenhouse
gas terms, if those sums have been done, I have not seen them.
It is not clear to me that it would be beneficial.
Q146 Chairman: Do I take it from
that you are not particularly optimistic about finding a second
generation of biofuel which would be very economically viable?
Professor Clift: Correct.
Chairman: You have been absolutely model
witnesses. Thank you very much for coming in.