The title to this post may seem like an odd question, but I think it is an inescapable one, as I hope to demonstrate. The US Department of Agriculture has a mandate for a huge biofuel planting programme, the largest in the world in 2005. Currently around 13.5 billion gallons are produced per annum. The aim is to grow this to 36 billion gallons by 2022.
Then along came the US drought of 2012. US farmers are asking the USDA to forgo the biofuel mandate. It turns out that that they need all of that corn to keep food prices down.
The fact that biofuels compete with land for food crops and can produce food shortages has been noted by others. The US drought has simply demonstrated that the issue will affect rich and poor nations.
But the dream of using biofuels on a large scale for transportation has always been fanciful. US production targets for biofuels have been based on assumptions about technological developments and the availability and productivity of farmland. A recent report, using satellite data about climate, plant cover and usable land, showed that meeting current US biofuel production targets with existing technology would require “devoting almost 80 percent of current farmland in the US to raising corn for ethanol production or converting 60 percent of existing rangeland to biofuels.”
The problem is particularly acute for one transportation sector, the airline industry. This is because biofuels are plan A in the airline industry for dealing with climate change. There is no plan B. As The Economist put it, “There is no realistic prospect for widespread electric air travel: the jet engines on aircraft need the high-energy density that only chemical fuels can provide. So if you want low-carbon flying, drop-in biofuels are the only game in town. And civil aviation alone is expected to use 250 billion litres [66 billion gallons] of fuel this year”. Remember, this is the aerospace industry, which just sky-craned a 1 tonne robot into the Gale crater of Mars. These seriously clever people have looked at aviation emissions from every angle, and, for the forseeable future, drop-in aviation biofuels are all we have to resolve the problem of jetting masses of people around the planet at 1000 kph without producing prodigious amounts of CO2 and other nasties.
One component of the US biofuels programme is an initiative called “Farm to Fly.” The idea is that the 13.5 billion gallons of biofuels can contribute to the 17 to 19 billion gallons per year requirement in the US for jet fuel. In other words, in order to reduce aviation emissions in the US in any meaningful way, a very large proportion of the biofuels produced must be pumped to airports.
There is lots of talk, a lot of conferences, and a lot of announcements about promising aviation biofuels trials and targets. But probe a little deeper and you will find that airlines are relying mainly on policy arguments about the percentage of total emissions for aviation in relation to global emissions, not unfairly targeting one sector, the value of tourism, etc etc. They know these biofuel numbers, and they know that the jig is up. They just hope to keep their audience distracted for a little longer.
So right now we face a stark choice. If we want to continue to fly essentially whenever and wherever at 1000 kph, and we really want to do that in a sustainable way, somewhere, someone is going to get less to eat. And increasingly that will include us. Think about that when food prices rise at your supermarket this year, and when they ask at the checkout if you want to use your FlyBuys card.
Tom Bennion is an environment lawyer who gave up flying in 2009.