Thursday, July 31, 2008

Green gold

The algal biofuels story sounds too good to be true, so it probably is.

I have an alarm in my head which goes off whenever I hear the phrase "carbon neutral". My right eyebrow involuntarily raises in a Spock-like fashion and I look for the catch. The term itself sits uncomfortably with me, along with 'carbon offset'. Anyhow, the concept goes like this: when the fuel is burned it releases only the amount of CO2 the biological fuel source absorbed during growth. So far so green. The cynical devil on my shoulder argues that under the same rules fossil fuels could be classified as carbon neutral as they only emit the amount of CO2 that was sequestered millions of years ago by dead vegetation.

To be truly carbon neutral, the process of growing, gathering, processing and transportation should not result in a net increase in emissions. That means that before the fuel gets to the tank in your car each step in the process must either be powered by renewable energy and/or more carbon neutral energy sources.

In an economic culture where growth rules, successful carbon neutral fuels would ensure that we become a victim of that success. The algae fuel would be subject to usual market forces (assuming we avoid daft minimum biofuel use rules like the EU is trying to push), so as demand raises, so will production. Whilst the algae sucks up CO2, when it burns it will put it back. There is no growth, but there also is no net reduction in emissions. The most that can be hoped for is that the rate of CO2 emissions growth may be reduced.

Whilst such initiatives may sound impressive, they don't meet the key challenge - we need to reduce our carbon emissions. Even if every car in the world could sustainably run on biofuels, we would still need to make drastic cuts in the carbon budget if we want a hope of staving off runaway climate change.

With this post I'm afraid I'm calling shenanigans somewhat on many greens who see a future in algal biofuels and a way of weaning our economy off fossil fuel. Don't get me wrong, I can see a limited opportunity for such a product, but only one which fits into a diverse energy source model, with the focus on net reductions in CO2 rather than mere neutrality.

So I'm not so cynical that I can't see the investment possibilities, and I'd much prefer to see more investment in such initiatives than drilling for more oil, but a lot of people will get rich on what is essentially a status quo technology, a 'less worse' solution.

To see these biofuels as some great rescue from growing emissions could be dangerous wishful thinking.


punkscience said...

I hear you buddy. I'll give you a response when I've got a moment.


punkscience said...

Well, I had a go but I'm not that happy with it.

I'll probably tinker with it over the next few days, editing the nonsensical bits.