Sugar and corn carrying transport

From the Financial Times comes this bit of advice from Nicholas Sterns, author of one of the more respected (and moderate) reports on climate change. The short of it: biofuels are barmy. But pyromania is, precisely, a mania. The notion that burning things is the only route to fuel is one that leaves intact, much to the pleasure of the automobile and allied industries, the technologies of internal combustion. Serious thinking about climate change will have to move away from this, and quickly…

Warning to biofuel producers to give up sugar

By Fiona Harvey and Ed Crooks

Published: June 18 2007 22:48 | Last updated: June 18 2007 22:48

Turning grains and sugar cane into fuel is not the answer to cutting greenhouse gas emissions from transport, one of the most influential economic experts on climate change has said.

Sir Nicholas Stern, author of a landmark report on the economics of climate change last year and adviser to the UK government, told the Financial Times: “I don’t believe that sugar and corn could possibly carry the weight of transport.”

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The debate over the use of biofuels has intensified recently. The food industry has warned that attempts by the US and European governments to increase energy security and cut carbon emissions by using plants for vehicle fuel have helped to raise the price of food.

Environmentalists have also sharply criticised bio­fuels, saying that growing them in tropical countries such as Indonesia and Brazil is encouraging deforestation.

Sir Nicholas acknowledged that the crops could contribute to greenhouse gas emissions reductions, but warned that turning over too much land to the cultivation of such crops would be counter­productive. “[Biofuels] have a role to play, but I’ve worked a lot in India, as you know, and other countries in agriculture, where you don’t have to be very knowledgeable to know that sugar is highly water-intensive and needs fertile land.”

Instead, he said, biofuels production should be concentrated on crops that can grow on land where food crops cannot be grown. “The key thing is to grow it on marginal land, [of] which [there] is a lot in central Asia, western Brazil, around the Sahara, and in parts of Indonesia – there are huge areas.”

Some biofuels crops, such as the jatropha plant, can be grown on scrubland that is not sufficiently productive for conventional agriculture.

But Sir Nicholas praised the biofuels industry, particularly in Brazil, for “leading the charge in ideas” and was optimistic on the prospects for second-generation bio­fuels, which would turn waste products into fuel.

Sir Nicholas, speaking to the FT before stepping down from his UK Treasury post, said he was “a lot more optimistic than a year ago” about the prospects for international action to tackle climate change. He called for “a real international coming together of energies and ideas on R&D, so there can be healthy competition but also [co-operation] … we really need those flowers to bloom. Different countries are going to use different things [to cut emissions].”

The Stern report on the economics of climate change concluded it would be cheaper to cut emissions now rather than wait decades for new technology to be developed and put the cost of the necessary action at about 1 per cent of global gross domestic product if action was taken quickly, while the consequences of inaction would be to cut GDP by between 5 per cent and 20 per cent.

Sir Nicholas was the World Bank chief economist before joining the UK’s Treasury, which he has left to join the London School of Economics.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007