Biofuels once seemed like such a good idea. Coal pollutes, and so does costly oil. But year after year, Mother Nature gives us crops; with a little high-tech alchemy these can become relatively clean-burning fuels. Problem solved, or partly solved.
Around the world, governments have pumped billions into research, subsidies, tax credits and other stimulus for this clean green new form of energy. But now it is all toppling down.
The latest nail in the coffin of biofuels is a report from scholars at Lancaster University, in the UK, published in the journal Nature Climate Change: it turns out that some burning biofuels emit high levels of isoprene. When this mixes with other pollutants in sunlight, the product is toxic ozone. Meeting the European Union's 2020 wood-biofuel target would cause 1,400 premature deaths a year, the study said.
More tests will tell us if the same is true of corn, soybeans, sugar cane and other crops once harvested only for food and animal feed. But biofuel now consumes fully a quarter of US grain crops, and is a lucrative export for landowners in poor countries that can't feed their people.
Farmers and lucky industrialists love biofuel subsidies; this idea will not die easily. But it just isn't working. Time for another plan.