The Biofuel Controversy

Summary

About a decade ago, the main OECD countries decided to promote the use of biofuels so as to reduce greenhouse gases, to contribute to energy self-sufficiency and to create additional demand for agricultural commodities. The introduction of mandatory blending requirements and lavish subsidies spurred fast adoption of this technology. In the course of 2008, the already existing controversy about the effectiveness of this strategy culminated as the resulting upward shift in demand contributed to staggering rises in food prices on world markets. It is uncertain as yet whether this will tone done current ambitions among policy makers to expand biofuel production. The paper shows that high ratios of energy prices to food prices are needed to make biofuel production profitable without the mandatory blending and subsidies. Yet, even if food-based biofuels disappeared, the issue remains that rising high energy prices will promote intensified use worldwide of land for energy crops, requiring huge amounts of mineral fertilizers and putting nature under additional pressure. In policy terms, this defines three major tasks. The first is replacing the current excise taxes on energy carriers by a uniform carbon tax, so as to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions in an efficient manner, the second to prevent price fluctuations on the oil markets from destabilizing food markets, as happened in recent years. Introduction of upper limits on the use of food for biofuel could prove effective here. The third, much wider, task is to make the transition to a partly biomass based energy production possible and sustainable, that is establishing fair distribution of property and user rights over the lands, while safeguarding biodiversity and soil fertility and maintaining adequate labour standards and living conditions, also during periods that these become non-profitable following a drop in energy prices.

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Correspondence to Michiel A. Keyzer.

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The authors thank Lia van Wesenbeeck for her comments.

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Keyzer, M.A., Merbis, M.D. & Voortman, R.L. The Biofuel Controversy. De Economist 156, 507–527 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10645-008-9098-x

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Keywords

  • Biofuels
  • carbon tax
  • fuel blending requirements
  • greenhouse gases
  • natural resource management

JEL Code(s)

  • Q24
  • Q32
  • Q42
  • Q56
  • Q58