Strong action on biofuels – but can anything stop the rise of coal?


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There’s both good and bad news coming through this week when it comes to energy news. On the one hand, we have some positive new EU rules on biofuel use; and on the other hand, we have some very bad news about the growing use of coal. Let’s have a look at both of them.

In Europe, the EU have agreed new targets for biofuels derived from food crops such as maize. There is a general target for 10% of all fuel to be from renewable sources by 2020, but from this year onwards, only 7% can be from food-derived biofuels – previously the entire target was expected to be reached from such fuels. Why is this good? Well, although making fuel out of renewable resources like food crops is a better option for our environment than continually digging up more fossil fuels, it is starting to have a damaging effect on food prices and hunger. By allowing food crops to be used as fuel, there was always a risk of pushing prices up and of prioritizing food for our cars over food for humans. This new target should help to avoid those problems, although it’s not as strong as the original 5% that was suggested.

What will be needed, however, is for more money to be invested in developing alternative biofuels from things like algae. These will have a much smaller environmental and social impact than using food crops, but are currently only in the developmental stage, and the EU is not yet providing enough incentives to encourage further research. They have set an informal target of sourcing 0.5% of their fuel from such sources by 2020, but this is both too small and non-binding.

Now for the bad news. Despite these alternative fuels, coal is now reported to be the fastest growing energy source in the world, and is currently commanding a greater share of the worldwide energy market than it has since the 1970s. The continued use of such an environmentally damaging fuel threatens to wipe out any gains that might be made from new energy technologies, and could push us ever closer to unstoppable climate change. The growth in coal usage is partially being encouraged by the needs of rapidly developing countries like China, but we cannot totally blame them – western countries are also increasing their usage of coal, and are not providing enough help for developing countries to green their energy systems and economies.

So on the one hand, we see politicians aiming for a more enlightened energy policy. On the other, we see market conditions (the high demand for energy coupled with the cheap price of coal) pushing us in the other direction. It leads us to conclude that a more coordinated international energy system may be needed – one which is based on political and social decisions rather than simply the whims of the market. We need to develop a system of international investment in researching and developing new energy technologies that can put an end to coal and oil once and for all. This isn’t going to happen without serious cooperation between states, and it isn’t going to happen if we leave things up to a capitalist market system – instead, cheap fossil fuels will simply continue to be extracted and burned.

The EU’s approach is a good start – they are working together to try to develop a system that benefits European citizens, people of other countries, and still leaves room for businesses to operate and grow within the confines of a planned energy policy. It needs to be extended and made stronger, and applied to all areas of our energy consumption, and similar moves need to be encouraged on a worldwide stage. If we are going to avoid climate change and dig ourselves out of the energy problems we have created, we are going to have to work together, consciously.


Article prepared by John Wish