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Decarbonization of Liquid Fuels

Decarbonization of Liquid Fuels

What if the explosion of modern progress and economic growth associated with the industrial revolution depends on the massive saving of the requirements of land and labor in human affairs made possible by oil?

If we agree on this point, probably biofuels (a strategy using land and labor to save oil) are not a good idea to boost further economic growth. This Uncomfortable Knowledge Hub (UKH) series consists of one teaser video and two video lectures reflecting on the experience done in the past and on the future of biofuels in EU.

What is uncomfortable knowledge?

Uncomfortable knowledge is a concept introduced by Steve Rayner*. As Rayner puts it: “to make sense of the complexity of the world so that they can act, individuals and institutions need to develop simplified, self-consistent versions of that world”. The chosen, self-consistent narratives and explanations necessarily leave out some relevant aspects of the issue in order to remain simple and useful. In this situation “knowledge which is in tension or outright contradiction with those versions must be expunged. This is uncomfortable knowledge which is excluded from policy debates, especially when dealing with ‘wicked problems’”.

*Steve Rayner, 2012. Uncomfortable knowledge: the social construction of ignorance in science and environmental policy discourses. Economy and Society 41(1): 107-125.

What is quantitative storytelling?

Quantitative storytelling (QST), the systematic approach used to present material on the Uncomfortable Knowledge Hub, does not claim to present the “truth” about a given issue, nor that all the numbers used in the story are uncontested. When dealing with wicked issues, all numbers can always be calculated in a different way and narratives are always contested. QST simply presents alternative stories useful to check the quality of existing narratives and to enrich the diversity of insights about a given issue.


The basic problem with the idea of biofuels (2 min 22 sec)

The basic problem with the idea of biofuels. If we compare the various inputs (labor, land, water, technical capital) required to supply a net MJ of fossil fuels with the supply of a net MJ of biofuels, we can clearly see the systemic lack of biophysical feasibility and economic viability of biofuels. Current consumption of fossil fuels could not substituted by existing biofuels.

Lessons learned from the large-scale experiment of agro-biofuels in USA and Brazil in the ‘90s​ (9 min 22 sec)

What lessons can we learn from the large-scale experiment of agro-biofuels in USA and Brazil in the ‘90s? The production of ethanol from corn (in the USA) and ethanol from sugarcane (in Brazil) represents an example of two completely different approaches to the production of agro-biofuels. In the US case, they boosted labor productivity but this solution killed the net energy supply.  In the Brazilian case, they boosted the net energy supply, but this solution killed the labor productivity. The lessons learned across the two solutions suggest a central conclusion: there is something radically wrong with the idea of producing fuels from food. 

Can biofuels drive our future? A reflection on the situation of biofuels in the EU and their future​ (12 min 50 sec)

Can biofuels drive our future? The situation of biofuel in the EU is bad: the amount produced is irrelevant in relation to demand, they do not reduce emissions (when considering Indirect Effects of Land Use Changes), and they do not guarantee self-sufficiency (their production requires a significant import of feed-stocks). Possibly, the future looks even worse—the existing supply is based on typologies of biofuels that must be phased out and new generations are not looking too rosy. Acknowledging that we badly need alternatives to fossil liquid fuels does not entail that anything or everything goes. Why don’t we look for processes of generation of fuels not depending on biomass?


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