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A column by a British (sometime-) academic may point the way toward research opportunities for American universities.

February 13, 2008

A column by a British (sometime-) academic may point the way toward research opportunities for American universities.

George Monbiot has been a visiting professor of environmental science, planning, philosophy and politics; he’s now best known as a muckraking investigative journalist. Much of his work relates to issues of global warming and sustainability in general, and he’s always an interesting read. His column yesterday in The Guardian makes it clear, though, that he’s no fan of biofuels, at least as they’re currently envisioned. Monbiot has made this point before, but with the rapid advances in technology, a return look is certainly in order.

Monbiot’s main points are that (1) leading lenders and other financial firms see unavoidable oil shortages in the near future, (2) governments — particularly the UK and the EU, but the USA is hardly better — are asleep at the switch, and (3), as his title ("Apart from used chip fat, there is no such thing as a sustainable biofuel") makes clear, current approaches to biofuels are problematic.

That’s not to say that viable approaches to biofuel production won’t evolve, but the problem isn’t a simple one. Converting food crops to fuel creates food/feed shortages. Taking cropland out of food production creates similar problems. Cultivating virgin land for fuel production eliminates abeneficial carbon sink. Converting raw food byproducts ("wastes” such as straw and chaff) to fuel prevents them from returning nutrients to the soil. No option seems attractive.

There may well be a middle ground, though, which allows efficient, sustainable production of biofuels. If food production can be made more land-efficient, or (semi-)abandoned farmland utilized, then the picture changes. There’s a good deal of research currently focusing on actual biofuel production. But, if leading financial firms are really worried, that might indicate one path toward funding research on a range of related issues, all affecting sustainability.


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