In 2002 the hills of South Wales were redolent with the fragrant vapours of something … chippy. Farmers had discovered that their Land Rovers worked perfectly well on throwaway vegetable oil. They’d also discovered that Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise weren’t collecting fuel tax at the local fish and chip shop. They were just a few years ahead of their time.
Christchurch is currently suffering a plague of rickety old buses plastered with advertisements explaining that we were supposed to get new buses but there was a an earthquake and blah, blah, but the new ones are coming and they’ll be all shiny and run on biodiesel.
Biodiesel is now big business - if by “business” you mean “heavily subsidised fad”. Whereas inventive Welsh motorists saved a small fortune in excise duty with their do-it-yourself tax cuts, in the government’s hands biodiesel had become an expensive boondoggle.
The 2009 budget contained a $36 million subsidy for manufacturing biodiesel, most of which the government will give back to itself in the form of payments to state owned Solid Energy’s Biodiesel NZ division.
Luckily this is outweighed by Solid Energy’s $68 million annual profit from its real business. As a state owned enterprise, the company is required to behave like a proper business and so it can’t invest its own profits in biodiesel because that would be a reckless waste of money. Hence the money-go-round.
New Zealand already has some experience with biodiesel powered vehicles. Earthrace was built in Auckland to showcase eco-friendly technologies and claim a world record for circumnavigating the globe.
After many mechanical difficulties and the killing of a Guatemalan fisherman, Earthrace managed the round trip in sixty-one days, a day slower than the fastest circumnavigation by a nuclear submarine (with no carbon emissions) and ten days slower than the fastest trip by a sailing ship (with no carbon emissions).
Physicist David MacKay (incidentally chief scientific advisor to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change) has noted that Earthrace consumed four times as much fuel per passenger-mile as the QE2, that paragon of environmental ascetism.
With the ignoble exception of Earthrace, which was briefly powered on Pete Bethune’s liposucked arse fat, New Zealand biodiesel is made from canola. Around the world biodiesel is made from many kinds of vegetable oils but they all amount to one thing: burning food.
Between biodiesel and ethanol production for fuel, five percent of the world’s food is now burnt for fuel. In 2008, diversion of food into fuel programmes combined with an Australian drought to push prices up to the point where there were riots in several countries.
In general, however, food production is keeping pace with the world’s population. While environmentalists whined about overpopulation and mass starvation, technology and capitalism got on with the job of feeding everyone. Only the meddlers and do-gooders can bugger it up. Making a bet that we’re all going to starve and then passing laws requiring us to set fire to the grain reserves is just not cricket.
If we want to feed everyone - and it would be unkind not to - then land for growing biofuels has to come from somewhere else. And the only other places that are really good at growing stuff and that aren’t already covered in food are forests.
Conversion of tropical forests into palm oil plantations for biodiesel is already happening in Malaysia and Indonesia. And, in a tragic greenie-on-greenie scrap, that “sustainable” fuel production can only occur by destroying the habitat of orangutans.
So here’s the question: if you’re going to drive an empty bus round and round in circles from one shopping mall to an identical other, should it be powered by burning the remains of animals that died 300 million years ago ,or by burning orangutans today?
* * Bernard Darnton ‘s NOT PJ column appears here at NOT PC every Thursday. * *