The biofuel backlash is in full swing. It’s being driven by rising food prices; farming subsidies that look more suspicious by the day; and a general feeling that people have been conned about the benefits of these supposedly green fuels. 

In the UK, there was a frenzy of protest as the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) came into force on 15 April. This requires 5 per cent of all transport fuel sold on UK forecourts to come from a renewable source by 2010, and expects producers to report how much carbon their fuel has saved over its entire life-cycle.

At the same time in the US, a striking cover from Time magazine teamed a corn cob with the headline: ’The clean energy myth’. Inside, Time  slammed biofuels as a ’scam’ that increases food prices and accelerates global warming. 

Yet conflating the issues surrounding Indonesian palm oil, North American corn ethanol and European biodiesel - as many people intent on scoring political points in the debate have done - is a serious mistake. Jeremy Tomkinson, head of the UK’s National Non-Food Crops Centre, warns (p40) that using legitimate concerns about sustainability to tar all biofuels as environmentally unsound risks derailing a fledgling enterprise that could make a significant impact on our greenhouse gas emissions. 

Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that the environmental benefits of large-scale corn-derived ethanol are deeply questionable. As Jean-Paul Lange, of Shell Global Solutions in the Netherlands, told the American Chemical Society meeting in New Orleans in early April: ’Corn is not a way to put sustainable energy in your tank.’ The water demand of biofuels is also coming under closer scrutiny, while some European producers are struggling in the face of soaring raw materials costs.

Still, many of those in the ethanol business insist that corn ethanol is a necessary step to create the infrastructure for cleaner, greener cellulosic ethanol, made from fibrous plant waste. Yet rewind a decade, and a very different story was told. Corn ethanol would save the planet, and cellulosic ethanol was just around the corner. Today, cellulosic is still at least five years away from significant production. No cellulosic technologies have been commercialised and the technology is still unproven at the large scale. 

Despite all this, biofuels may be the only way out of our dependency on fossil fuels for transport. Clean hydrogen production and storage, and high-capacity batteries, have been under intensive research for decades - but their rate of development just isn’t rapid enough to provide the alternatives we need right now. 

Biofuels certainly aren’t the most efficient way to harvest solar energy - but because they are liquids, they provide a very convenient method of distribution that is more likely to be adopted by the market. Electric power can be transmitted using existing power lines, but drivers expect vehicles to refuel in minutes. The alternative - swapping depleted for freshly-charged cells at fuelling stations - requires an even more intensive distribution system. So instead of subsidies for backwards technologies such as corn ethanol, governments should be investing heavily to help bring commercial-scale second-generation plants on stream. That might go some way to repairing biofuels’ damaged reputation. 

Ultimately, the sad truth is that the benefits of bioethanol were knowingly oversold by its proponents before vital environmental assessments of the technology were completed. Sustained hype will always be followed by a backlash - especially if people think they’ve been deliberately misled by those with vested interests. In many senses, the industry is simply reaping what it sowed. 

Mark Peplow, editor