Biodiesel Day

August 10th has been declared "International Biodiesel Day because on that date in 1893, Rudolph Diesel ran one of his early engines in Augsburg, Germany, on nothing but peanut oil. It was, however, only in 1977 that Expedito Parente, a Brazilian scientist, invented and patented the first industrial process for the production of biodiesel.

It's not quite clear why biodiesel deserves a day. In fact, if anything, it deserves to be forgotten. It is one of the silliest things ever one in the name of 'renewables.' Determined to be seen to be cutting back on the dreaded fossil fuels, people went for fuels derived from vegetables (and in some cases animal fats) , and therefore renewable. Farmers, especially in the EU and the US, were rewarded for growing crops that could be converted into diesel fuel to be used in transport and heating. 3.8 million tons were produced worldwide in 2005, with approximately 85% of biodiesel production from the European Union.

Biodiesel is made by the transesterification of vegetable oil or animal fat feedstock, with rapeseed and soybean oils most commonly used. Soybean oil accounts for about half of U.S. production. Biodiesel can be used by itself, or mixed with petrodiesel in different proportions, and blends of it can also be used as heating oil. Some concerns have been expressed about the effect that biodiesel has on engines. Mercedes Benz revokes its warranty if fuels containing more than 5% biodiesel are used.

The more pressing concerns are about world food prices, especially in poor countries, and the environmental impact biodiesel has. Moving fully to biofuels could require huge tracts of land if traditional food crops were used. Environmental groups including Greenpeace and Rainforest Rescue have criticized the use of oil palms, soybeans and sugar cane for biofuels, pointing to the loss of rainforest cleared for their plantations. They claim that oil palm plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia have caused tropical deforestation there.

Two factors are behind the food problems. If food stocks are used for fuels, there is less available for consumption, leading to price increases. The rising price of vegetable oils and basic feedstocks means that poor people cannot afford food if they are outbid by those wanting it for fuel. There have been attempts to make fuels from inedible crops, but these have made only a marginal contribution. Researchers in Nevada, for example, have developed a process for making biodiesel from used coffee grounds. However, even if it could be done on a commercial scale, the entire world supply of coffee grounds would not contribute even 1% of the diesel used annually in the US alone.

Critics also point out that if farmers switch from growing food crops to growing fuel crops, it means that less food will be produced, and the price of it will rise. It seems a strange world in which mothers in rich countries can feel virtuous by driving their children to school in giant 4x4 'Chelsea tractors' running on biofuels, at the expense of mothers in poor countries unable in consequence to afford enough food for their children.

Biodiesel seems to represent one of the worst cases of environmental tokenism, doing something that looks good without taking account of its real impact. Taking an environmental protester across the Atlantic on a millionaire's high-speed yacht "to save the environmental impact of flying her" is virtue signaling of the highest order. The environmental impact of that voyage far outweighs many times over that of putting her in a plane seat that would otherwise be flown across empty.

It is highly probably that petrol and diesel engines will be banned from our cities in the near future, and then gradually phased out elsewhere, replaced by electric vehicles than can be powered by relatively low impact electricity generation. Even before that happens it is to be hoped that governments will recognize the folly of using food crops to make fuel. Promoting it and subsidizing it was one of the more wicked things the European Union has done. On International Biodiesel Day, we would do well to realize that.