Alternative Fuels

What are the pros and cons of bio-fuels? Are they worth developing and producing to an increased extent?

Bio-fuels appear to provide a viable alternative to fossil fuels. In simple terms, sugar based crops can be used to make ethyl alcohol, a replacement for petrol, and oil based crops can be used to make bio-diesel.

Use of this alternative reduces emissions of CO2 and consequently lowers the build up of greenhouse gases and the risk of global warming. It would seem, therefore, on the face of it, that as the remaining resources of fossil fuel decline, bio-fuels can provide the natural alternative and, eventually, replacement. This would mean that use of road and other vehicles based on the internal combustion engine could continue into the foreseeable future, thus saving the need to seek alternative forms of motive power.

However, a detailed consideration must be given to the real worth of bio-fuels before any balanced decision can be made on their production. Furthermore, worth should not be considered solely in terms of financial benefit for the producer and convenience for users of motor vehicles.

If money were the sole criterion, a consideration of viability would be relatively simple, and would go something like this. Fossil fuels are running out and therefore becoming more expensive. An alternative can be produced from crops. Farmers and countries producing and selling these crops can earn considerable sums from the world market. Therefore it is in the interest of these farmers and countries that bio-fuels should be produced.

Owners of motor vehicles face increasing costs as fuel prices rise and governments begin to tax more heavily high carbon emitting vehicles. A major shift to alternative forms of power would be expensive both for motor manufacturers and for vehicle owners. So a wider use of bio-fuels would be likely to benefit vehicle makers and users alike.

So what is the negative side to this argument? In fact it is equally as straight forward, and rather more compelling.

A change in the use of crops from food production to bio-fuel production would reduce the amount of food on the world market. This would increase the price of food, something which has already begun to happen. The people who would suffer as a result would be those unable to afford food at the increased price, therefore the people who most need assistance in general, i.e. the world poor, would begin to lose the one thing they need most.

In order to produce bio-fuels to the extent that would be necessary to replace fossil fuel use, new areas would need to come under cultivation. This would need to happen on a massive scale and would involve the removal of forests, with a consequent effect on environmental stability and world climate. In other words a product designed to reduce world climate change would inevitably bring it about by other means, as well as destroying the habitat of animal, bird and plant species.

Once again this is already happening, and Brazil and Indonesia are facing growing condemnation for their forest clearance schemes.

So it may be argued that bio-fuels are worth producing from the point of view of the companies and countries which would gain financial profit from their sale, and from the point of view of vehicle manufacturers and users.

But the counter argument is that bio-fuel production distorts world food prices by diverting crop use from food to fuel production, it causes environmental and climatic damage as new production areas are cleared, and therefore does nothing to ameliorate global warming.

Bio-fuels may be worth producing from one point of view, but are they worth producing at any cost? That is the more important question.