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Both the EU and the USA have programmes to encourage the use of biofuels in gasoline and diesel. This is supposed to help reduce oil imports and help the environment at the same time.

But government subsidies and mandates have been criticised (see this from The Economist) and have even been accused of causing damaging distortions in world food prices.

Now, a new analysis of policy in the EU suggests they are both expensive and not even any good for helping the environment. This report in The Register summarises:

The craze for biofuels - a part of EU legislation for a decade now - is costing Europeans a fortune and isn't even environmentally friendly, a new report by renowned British think-tank Chatham House argues.

The original report is here as a pdf.

The Register suggests the consequences of biofuel mandates include:

...the poor starve, food prices are more volatile, and they don't contribute to greenhouse gas emission reductions...

The Economist concurs:

The ethanol mandate is clearly wasteful, does environmental damage, contributes to higher food prices at home and abroad through the misallocation of agricultural resources, and is a needless tax on everyone who drives in America. Time for it to go.

So the question is, are biofuels an expensive bad idea that don't even help the environment?

Update

Another calculation on the carbon neutrality of biofuels has been released. The original paper is here. It concludes they are not as carbon neutral as thought.

A news story on Gizmodo, headlined "Biofuels Worse for Global Warming Than Petrol", reports the new study but also notes that it is controversial:

The Renewable Fuels Association obviously thinks this stinks as much as a trillion Argentinian cow farts, with RFA's Geoff Cooper saying: "He has been making these arguments for years, and for years they have been rejected by climate scientists, regulatory bodies and governments around the world, and reputable life-cycle analysis experts. Just like Professor DeCicco’s last study, this work was funded by the American Petroleum Institute, which obviously has a vested interest in obscuring and confusing accepted bioenergy carbon accounting practices."

So they disagree and choose an ad hominem attack rather than pointing out where the calculations are wrong. This leaves the question of whether the calculations are any good open to skeptical analysis.

Clarification

Some comments have suggested that the question is too broad. I disagree but for the sake of argument let us agree that we should judge the question of environmental friendliness purely in terms of the effect on CO2 production.

By the metric of carbon mitigation, are the major biofuels used in transport fuel environmentally friendly compared to the fossil fuels they replace?

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    I think "biofuels" is too broad to answer since different biofuels have very different levels of energy efficiency. Many sources say that grain derived Ethanol is not a "green" fuel and may even consume more energy than it produces. There are other ethanol biofuels - like Brazil's sugarcane derived ethanol that may be better. And there are lots of other alternatives like biofuels derived from cooking waste oil, high lipid algae, cellulose derived ethanol that may be more efficient. – Johnny Apr 17 '13 at 21:07
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    @vartec: There are lots of claims that biofuels are better than oil. Just ask the National Corn Growers Association and they'll give you lots of reasons why Corn derived Ethanol is better than fossil fuels for the environment: ncga.com/news-and-resources/news-stories/article/2012/09/… – Johnny Apr 18 '13 at 17:30
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    From the FAQ: "Your questions should be reasonably scoped. If you can imagine an entire book that answers your question, you’re asking too much." A general question that encompasses all biofuels is very broadly scoped. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of current and experimental biofuels. – Johnny Apr 18 '13 at 18:42
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    @matt_black: Here's a partial list of current Biofuel sources: Bioethanol (fermented corn, sugarcane, etc), PPO (pure plant oil), Biodiesel, Biogas (i.e methane from anerobic decay), Cellulose derived ethanol, Biomass-to-Diesel, Biomethanol, Biobutane, Biomass to oil, Biomass to hydrogen, Dimethyl Ether (organic compound similar to diesel), Synthetic Natural gas from biomass. Rather than imply one current widely used biofuel, why not explicitly list it, then the scope is much more reasonable and more easily answered. – Johnny Apr 18 '13 at 21:26
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    If you're serious about it only being about GHG emissions, then please remove all the other clutter from the question, because as it stands, you're still asking about several different claims at the same time – EnergyNumbers Aug 30 '16 at 6:43

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