Sean O'Grady is Economics Editor of "The Independent".
Being close to carbon neutral is the main advantage of biofuel technology. Switching to it means fewer greenhouse gases and fuel imports and a chance for Third World farmers to lift themselves out of poverty.
On some measures, such as effects on food prices and biodiversity, biofuels can do more harm than good. However, there is still a very strong case for them to be part of the solution to climate change.
This is principally because, soon, hundreds of millions of Chinese, Russians, Indians, Brazilians and others will be running cars, as their economies prosper and they take "their turn" to enjoy economic growth. Since these new vehicles are likely to run on the internal combustion engine, we simply have to deal with that reality and make biofuels cheap and widespread, as they are already in Brazil.
And the upsetting sacrifices needed, even in the loss of species and a rise in malnutrition, are prices worth paying to save the Earth from oblivion, as we cannot afford to spurn any potential savings in CO2 emissions.
Moreover, the science shows us that biofuels can become friendlier than they are, with the right amounts of official encouragement. Second generation biofuels rely on waste material (inedible stems and husks of corn, wheat and rice) in a crop rather than its food part. This principle can extend to all waste organic matter, or "biomass", from grass clippings to the left-over bark and wood from paper and furniture manufacture (as they do in Scandinavia).
Scientists even predict a potentially bright green future where algae-like organisms are used to make fuels and actually extract excess CO2 from the air. These truly carbon-negative biofuels are, they say, maybe 40 years into future. But without some push for biofuels now we will probably never see them.
So, we can see the current crimes of deforestation and despoliation (in Brazil, the Congo and Indonesia - the possible energy superpowers of the future) less as theft and more as a "loan" by the biofuel industry. However, the extent of such destruction already militates strongly for growing biofuels in Europe, where there is plenty of set-aside and marginal land and scope for productivity improvement.
The food price issue can also be solved by a sort of global tax and benefits system. Richer nations, now including China, are made to recognise the disproportionate impact our food and fuel consumption has on the poor in resource scarce nations at risk from climate change, such as Bangladesh. They then send large cheques to them to cover what must now be the inevitable costs of adjusting to climate change.
The Gallagher Review, reporting on the impact of biofuels, was critical about the damage that first generation biofuels can do. But Professor Gallagher was even-handed enough to agree that "it should be possible to establish a genuinely sustainable industry provided that robust, comprehensive and mandatory sustainability standards are developed and implemented".
He is right. We need to rediscover the great good that biofuels can do.