Satnavs, biofuel and climate change

Guest Post by Geoff Russell. Geoff recently released the popular book “Greenjacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change“.

Even if they don’t own one, most readers will have seen a Satnav, those miracles of modern technology which will direct you across town to a suburb and street you’ve never been to before. After you enter your destination, there’s a little pause and perhaps the screen displays a message like: “Calculating…”, and then the instructions start.

Okay, so why the pause?

Once it’s located its required satellites and knows where you are, the Satnav runs some form of shortest path algorithm to work out how to get to the destination. If you are interested, here’s a walk through of one popular algorithm in action.

Really impatient people might be annoyed by the pause. For such people, there’s a much faster way of proceeding which would make that pause so short as to be imperceptible. Here’s the algorithm for a no-pause Satnav. First make a list of each road passing through your current location. After all, you have to travel down one of these. Then consider some point a small distance (say 30 meters) away on each of the roads. It’s high school maths to determine if this point is closer to your destination than your current location. If it is, then off you go. Then at the next intersection of any kind, do the same thing again. The algorithm would be lightning fast, the pause would vanish, and it always takes you in the direction of the destination.

At this point you should get out a piece of paper and start doodling. Might the algorithm use dead end roads? Ah … yes. If you go down one, can you ever get out? Ah … no. Consider roads slightly less than tangential to a circle around your destination. Might the algorithm take them? Ah … I guess so. Could you end up driving backwards and forwards along such a road forever? Ah … yes, theoretically.

Obviously, the algorithm sucks; even though at each point it always chooses a road that takes you toward the destination. But it can suck even it doesn’t make any of the mistakes I mentioned. It can suck by simply taking a hopelessly circuitous route.

If you think about it, this algorithm is pretty close to the current international approach to tackling climate change. Of course, a Satnav is just for one person, but the climate change mitigation process is highly parallel, so it’s like everybody involved is using this same sucky algorithm.

How often have you seen news stories about some so-called climate friendly project; they all have a prominent claim somewhere like: “This project will deliver clean energy to Y thousand homes!” or, “This project will save X tonnes of CO2”? All such claims tell you is that the project is taking you somewhere closer to zero-carbon nirvana. They tell you nothing about whether you will ever get there or how long it might take.

Consider as an example: the on-going global roll out of biofuels.

Here’s the required claim about biofuels taking us nearer the destination; this particular version is from the US Department of Energy:

Life cycle analysis completed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and later by Argonne National Laboratory, found that greenhouse gas emissions for 100% biodiesel (B100) could be more than 52% lower than those from petroleum diesel.

The past 14 years have seen biofuel crops spreading across millions of hectares of the planet with the result that in 2013 the global production of biofuels was 113 billion litres. That certainly sounds like a lot, but how much of the world’s transportation can it power? About 3 percent. So at the present rate of growth we could power most of the world’s transport in around 33 x 14 = 462 years.

So does biofuel fall into the hopelessly circuitous category of paths or the dead end category? First lets see what is required.

Defining climate goals

We can use the latest IPCC estimates to see what kind of ball park a decarbonisation solution needs to hit. I’ll round a lot of numbers to make it easier to understand. Accumulated greenhouse gas emissions during the industrial period were about 500 billion tonnes by the end of 2011 and rising at a rate of 50 billion tonnes per year. Our budget over the next 50 to 100 years to keep the planet from warming by less than 2 degrees is something like 1,000 billion tonnes. So we are half way there and we’ll get there by about 2020. At 50 billion tonnes per year we’ll hit 2000 billion tonnes by 2040 and the planet will warm between 2.6 and 4.8 degrees. This means we can continue at 50 billion tonnes for at most a decade but if we continue for 30 years, the best we can hope for is a 2.6 degree global average temperature rise or that the modelers got things really wrong; and in the right direction. But as many people are starting to appreciate, it isn’t the average temperature rise that is the worst part of global warming, it’s the reduced stability.

This way of defining the problem makes it clear that time spent on biofuels has been time wasted. A project which only gives a maximum savings of some 50 percent anyway in its target area and which will take decades to implement belongs in the bin. It’s like being on a leaking ship, issuing spoons to the crew to start bailing and initiating research into which kind of spoon gives the best result.

Hopelessly slow or a dead end?

But the biofuel roll out is worse than just too slow.

Despite this sub-glacial growth rate, some countries have hit what is called the “blend wall”. Most ethanol blends are 10 or 15 percent and the kinds of vehicles that can take higher blends are still not sold in sufficient quantity to move the amounts of ethanol being produced. In other words, at 3 percent we have a biofuel glut. Less than 3 million of the 15.8 million vehicles sold in the US in 2013 will take higher ethanol blends. The response to hitting the blend wall was a drop in consumption in some countries. Biofuel consumption dropped 10 percent in Germany and 58 percent in Spain.

But even if there was no blend wall and even if we had 33 times more biofuels, we’d still have problems because they aren’t displacing an amount of carbon emissions equivalent to the fossil fuels they are replacing.

The Edgar 2014 Trends in Global CO2 Emissions report estimated that the 3 percent biofuel production didn’t displace 3 percent of fossil fuel transportation emissions, but more like 1 to 2 percent. This is consistent with the US Department of Energy estimate above. The reasons are complex and numerous but let’s just list a few: increased deforestation, particularly over peat soils in Indonesia, nitrous oxide emissions from fertilised fields. Nitrous oxide has 300 times the impact of CO2 on warming, so it doesn’t take too much to undermine emission reductions obtained by replacing fossil oil.


To entirely replace oil we’d need to scale up biofuels by 33 times and solve the nitrous oxide, deforestation and other problems. We’d also have to do it quickly. Is this possible?

The answer is clearly no.

Leaving aside Brazil’s fairly long history with biofuel, it’s taken 14 years to hit the paltry 3 percent figure and that’s happened without an equivalent drop in emissions. Also obvious is that this decade or so of biofuel growth has been as easy as it gets, largely just persuading farmers to switch from growing feed for livestock or food for people to growing fuel for cars by distributing buckets of money. Achieving the other 97 percent will be far harder.

Besides which, we don’t have the land.

There’s currently about 1.4 billion hectares of arable land on the planet. Consider the table below of some biofuel crops and representative yields:

Looking at the table above and doing a little arithmetic, we know how much land it will take to get 33 times the current output. At 7200 litres per hectare, we’d need half a billion hectares. At 1700 litres per hectare we’d need over 2.1 billion hectares.

So biofuels are a circuitously slow route to a decarbonisation cull-de-sac. We’ve wasted a decade on them and rather a lot of money. There may not be a perfect pathway, but we should at least stop rushing off on tangents with enormous vigor pursuing strategies which achieve less than bugger all. It’s time we acted more like real satnavs and started to plan.



  1. You might add that the farmer and plantation owner has used the cheaper fossil diesel to make the sought-after carbohydrates. They ain’t silly! Similarly at the processing and fermenting plant, not to mention the fossil diesel used to distribute the sanctified biofuel to its trendy clientele.


  2. The analogy of the faulty GPS, the “road” which is really a trail to a cliff, and dead-end roads in general is one that really needs to be put out there.  Too many people are demanding we turn down a dead-end road and then go full throttle.


  3. Excellent post. US DOE’s NE R&D programs are similarly constrained by its culture (say no evil about any other energy related program that DOE might be or has ever supported & never put anything you do or say into a genuinely meaningful context). One of the reasons why the Obama administration shot down the USA’s NE R&D programs are that GNEP etc was based upon reactors (SFRs) that have repeatedly proven to be neither economic nor “safe” fueled by an unproven, arty, “reprocessing” scheme that would surely be both very expensive & difficult to implement. In other words, it wasn’t attractive enough to convince him, his appointees, or the folks who actually buy/use nuclear reactors that they should continue to support it. Nothing that the US is willing to support R&D on now (in particular of the logical “winner”* of the GIF/GEN IV paper reactor sweepstakes*) is attractive enough to convince politicians to change their minds about the rules/assumptions responsible for today’s nuclear power impasse.

    The “western world” can’t just keep fiddling around the edges of this issue – climate change is real, fracking is bad, & lots of poor people are already dying every day because they can’t make a decent living in a world that insists upon keeping the cost of energy beyond their reach.

    i.e.,the EU’s MSFR. Wiley’s open-access “Energy Science and Engineering” will soon be publishing a “perspectives” which explains why.


  4. First generation biofuels indeed didn’t turn out to be what we were hoping for, but second generation biofuels (cellulosic ethanol and algae biofuels) are much more promising. We should only abandon first generation biofuels, but not yet the second. The reasons are good enough (no land/food competition, much more sustainable, much more potential) to at least pursue further research in this area.


  5. A more effective route to replacing high CO2 emitting transport fuels would be to use low CO2 produced electricity where possible and forget biofuels altogether.
    Fortunately help may be at hand. Within the next decade it is becoming increasingly likely that driverless electric taxi services may become established in some cities. The technology developments by companies like Google, Tesla and Uber are now moving quickly.
    A study done by Columbia University came up with some interesting figures. The study speculated that 18,000 autonomous taxis could replace around 200,000 private vehicles. It also estimated that electric autonomous taxis could cost 9 cents (US) per passenger mile compared to 45 cents for an average private vehicle. It also allowed that no passenger would have to wait more than 60 seconds for their car – even during rush hour.
    This study is only based on simulated scenarios, however even if the figures are half right, it points to a disruptive change in transport that could allow a pathway for low carbon energy to make serious inroads into road transport.
    Perhaps a better path would be to save our oil for transport that is not suited to electric power, such as long distance transport and aircraft, forget biofuels altogether, and leave our agricultural lands to produce food.


  6. Geoff. It would seem in Australia that the fuel distribution folks are recognising that most customers don’t buy E10 anymore so they are replacing the E10 storage tanks with regular petrol. Smart customers know that E10 is less fuel efficient than regular and the cost difference to efficiency makes E10 more expensive. The market may have recognised your concerns already.


  7. Liquid hydrocarbon fuels are dense and efficient, we’re not going to stop using them altogether. Ground transport can be electrified, for the most part (and naturally this means nuclear energy) but for air and space, liquid hydrocarbons will be around for a long, long time.

    Biofuels are less carbon intensive than those derived from fossil sources, especially if the energy used to process biomass– grown on marginal lands with little utility for growing food crops– comes from nuclear power. Liquid methane and methanol are two excellent choices.

    There’s also the potential to use special catalysts and sunlight to create liquid fuels directly from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So there’s nothing instrinsically wrong with hydrocarbons. The problem is the ones which come from buried carbon.


  8. Martin Kral,

    The Nuclear Industry has had decades of opportunity to develop nuclear energy packages for shipping, and have failed to rise to the challenge. i suggest that they pull their finger out urgently and come up with one of the cheap, safe, volume manufacturable power plants that you guys here are perpetually claiming is a no brainer.

    Get on with it.

    Shipping operates in international waters without the constraints of population and real estate contamination risk, yet conventional shipping produces huge amounts of CO2. Here is the target

    focus on it. Do that well and and there will be no need for land based reactors at all.

    Bio fuels are a co energy source. People who beat up on renewables reliably take one energy source at a time and attempt to make it a singular all encompassing energy solution to replace oil. It is a bullshit approach. Give it up.

    Renewable energy is a spread of energy sources distrubuted all over the world providing energy locally and distributed cost savings also locally.

    Renewable energy smashes the institutional investment and ownership model, eliminating one of the major funds sinks for rent seeking investment funds, and that is what is driving this anti renewable drive.

    Rockefeller demolished fords dream of an affordable biofuel powered transport vehicle when he manipulated the temperence movement to kill off all ethanol production. Had his oil greed not succeeded at doing that biofuels would have been highly sophisticated much earlier and would have found a proper balance point with food production and farming would have been significantly more efficient making food significantly cheaper than it is today.

    Now who is going to walk away with the idiot prize for the “you can’t make ethanol in Antarctica” argument?


  9. If you think that the shipping industry is not interested in nuclear, you would be wrong. The advantage of this approach is that you have to convince only one guy. At the moment he is put off by the Nuclear Industry’s incompetence. The CEO of Cosco is the only person to talk to.

    What is at stake here is a market of some 30,000 to 45,000 off 120 megawatt nuclear power systems. Do the research, do the maths.


  10. I can’t help thinking biofuel is and environmental disaster waiting to happen, but if it is to be done I think it should be done with algae. Algae has the potential to achieve a much higher efficiency than other biofuels.

    I can picture something like giant skyscraper algae farm where the algae flows through clear pipes, supplied with artificial light by nuclear power. This way it could use less land and the algae can be isolated from from other organism making it easier to engineer a superior (for our purposes at least) strain of algae. Maybe the air going into the farm can be sterilized first by passing through and area with High-level radioactive waste.


  11. Nuclear naval propulsion for military ships has proven quite reliable. Whether those reactors could be both secure and cost effective in merchant application is another question. Nuclear Ship Savannah provided real-world merchant test experience and was a qualified success: see

    Nuclear merchant propulsion is at least of academic interest: see


  12. Goeff Russell: second generation biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol uses corn stover and wood waste as feedstock. There’s a lot of it and there’s no competition for land use. I don’t know exact numbers how much bigger the potential is, but I can easily imagine it to be an order of magnitude greater than first generation biofuels.

    Algae biofuels also have big potential and they can be grown on brownfields or even deserts. So land use isn’t an issue.


  13. @ppp251

    Here are a few number I find relevant.

    “the theoretical maximum efficiency of solar energy conversion is approximately 11%”

    Most biofuels only get a fraction of that. The things that might be used for cellulosic ethanol are often the worse.

    “The photosynthetic efficiency of most forests based on aboveground NPP and Par is between 1 and 2 percent, with values of up to 3 percent for some rapidly growing, young plantations”

    So, please don’t treat nature like a gas tank. If you do we might just find we run empty some day.

    If you haven’t already please read these two things.

    sustainable energy without the hot air.

    Garbage in, Garbage out


  14. @ppp251: When you grow a crop think about what you take off the farm … the carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and most of the nitrogen came from the sky (the nitrogen was probably added in fertiliser or from legumes) or water. Everything else has to be put back. Otherwise your soil loses the capacity to grow stuff. The other problem with taking stuff off a farm is that if you leave your soil uncovered it blows or washes away. These two things create serious practical limits on what you can sustainably harvest … in addition to the strong limits pointed out by sodacup.


  15. Although the biosphere cannot efficiently deliver solar energy on an industrial scale, it does nevertheless present the most efficient means of collecting carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Having collected carbon as carbohydrate, we would still need to inject some other form of non-carbon energy to provide hydrocarbons as industrial scale.


  16. Nothing in my article rules out biofuels in niche markets, but the big problems need a solution (or set of solutions) and biofuels aren’t just useless, they are much worse. It will take 15+ years to turn over the worlds motor vehicles if that is required. For example to go from internal combustion to electric. So if there’s no good way of saving IC, then we need to get started on that transformation and biofuels have delayed that decision by maintaining the investment in IC technology. If someone wants to postulate an alternative decarbonisation pathway for vehicles that leverages the current IC investment, then I’m all ears, but it needs to be thought through at the required scale.

    @BilB: It is perfectly legitimate to consider renewable sources one at a time and see how they scale. If all fail to scale then it’s pretty unlikely that any combination will scale. Consider an example. Suppose an adequate human diet needs 7 percent of its calories as protein. Now consider those foods with less than 7 percent. Can you live on any one of them? No. Can you live on some combination? No. Each is inadequate and so is the combination. You may like to think about running that argument “the other way” … but its late and I’m going to bed now!


  17. Geoff Russell, in the long run everything will be electrified, including ships and planes. But this will not happen soon enough to mitigate climate change and that’s why we need some sort of temporary solution with liquid fuels.

    In this view second generation biofuels may be helpful. Nuclear powered electrolysis could also be temporary solution, but it’s unlikely to be cost competitive soon enough. Artificial photosynthesis (direct photocatalytic water splitting) is also an option, but it’s also less developed than second generation biofuels.


  18. second generation biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol uses corn stover and wood waste as feedstock.

    The downside is that processing is expensive, and lignocellulose is less than 70% cellulose and not all it can be converted.

    I can easily imagine it to be an order of magnitude greater than first generation biofuels.

    Excess corn stover supply is only sufficient to displace about 10% of current US gasoline volume (and less by energy).  Even the “Billion-Ton Vision” found that only about 30% of then-current US gasoline consumption was reasonably replaced by biofuels.

    Limits of NPP mean biofuels are inherently niche products; the heavy lifting must be done by other things.  People used to know this, but somehow the massive deforestation and other problems have been shoved down the memory hole, even when they are today’s reality in places like Haiti.  Solar and wind have always been far too spotty to rely on, and always will be.  For the last 150 years the heavy lifters have been coal, oil and natural gas, but we must substitute non-emitting energy now.  Geothermal is far too limited, so that means nuclear.

    One upside of nuclear is that add-ons like steam compression can supply temperatures well upwards of 500°C, which is suitable for some process heat uses as well as thermal energy storage in solar salt.  Nuclear process heat can convert waste biomass to low-grade fuels and biochar with little loss of net energy, making it perhaps the most desirable pathway for getting everything we can out of the limited supply.


  19. Pingback: A path to energy nirvana, or just a circuitous detour? | Brave New Climate

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