We are facing a future shaped by uncertainty. ‘Perfect storms’ of food and energy insecurity, the threat of climate change, and growing interdependencies are generating global risks of irreconcilable complexity. This coupling of uncertainty and complexity creates environmental, economic and social risks; and so-called solutions risk exacerbating problems rather than alleviating them.
Biofuels have been backed as one such solution to the perfect storms of tomorrow. Their multiple promises of low emissions, energy security and economic development are attractive to policymakers, entrepreneurs and governments. A combination of subsidy, market, technology and policy has quickly created a tightly integrated global system that plants biofuel crops, processes liquid biofuels and promises a better future for all. The ultimate, unspoken promise of biofuels is that they encourage us not to confront the roots of uncertainty and complexity: overconsumption, an over-reliance on fossil fuel, growing inequality.
Investing in biofuels means investing in uncertainty. We simply do not know enough about their impacts and implications. Do biofuels divert food from the fork to the forecourt? Are they more sustainable than other sources of energy? Can they ignite development? Perhaps the only certainty is that the production of biofuels will allow rich consumers to live their lives as they fit at the expense of the lives and livelihoods of poor people and countries. We may understand the chemistry of photosynthesis and the physics of combustion, but we do not yet understand the array of interactions and implications necessary to maximize benefit and reduce risk.
James Smith’s book, ‘Biofuels and the Globalization of Risk: The Biggest Change in North-South Relationships Since Colonialism?’, published by Zed Books Ltd will be released on 11 November 2010.