March 29, 2007
|Today's Biofuels Are A Disaster||Energy Environment|
If you run your car on recycled fry oil or biofuel generated from waste, awesome. But growing food crops to turn them into fuel (and ripping up rainforests to do it) is out and out lunacy. Nothing shows our addiction to fossil fuels more starkly than our willingness to bid up the price of food crops — so we can price the world's poor out of the market, take food out of their mouths, and set fire to it.
It's simple really. There's a finite amount of corn and other crops in the world. They go to the highest bidder. There isn't enough to feed the world as it is. But now we in the First World want to take a big piece of that pie and pour it into our gas tanks. Every bushel that goes for fuel is a bushel that cannot go for food. People must go hungry so we can drive our SUVs to Wal-Mart.
But it's actually worse than even that. Many of today's biofuels are an environmental disaster, too, worse for the planet than petroleum. George Monbiot explains:
It used to be a matter of good intentions gone awry. Now it is plain fraud. The governments using biofuel to tackle global warming know that it causes more harm than good. But they plough on regardless.
In theory, fuels made from plants can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by cars and trucks. Plants absorb carbon as they grow – it is released again when the fuel is burnt. By encouraging oil companies to switch from fossil plants to living ones, governments on both sides of the Atlantic claim to be "decarbonising" our transport networks.
In the budget last week, Gordon Brown announced that he would extend the tax rebate for biofuels until 2010. From next year all suppliers in the UK will have to ensure that 2.5% of the fuel they sell is made from plants — if not, they must pay a penalty of 15p a litre. The obligation rises to 5% in 2010. By 2050, the government hopes that 33% of our fuel will come from crops. Last month George Bush announced that he would quintuple the US target for biofuels: by 2017 they should be supplying 24% of the nation's transport fuel.
So what's wrong with these programmes? Only that they are a formula for environmental and humanitarian disaster. In 2004 this column warned that biofuels would set up a competition for food between cars and people. The people would necessarily lose: those who can afford to drive are, by definition, richer than those who are in danger of starvation. It would also lead to the destruction of rainforests and other important habitats....Well in one respect I was wrong. I thought these effects wouldn’t materialise for many years. They are happening already.
Since the beginning of last year, the price of maize has doubled. The price of wheat has also reached a 10-year high, while global stockpiles of both grains have reached 25-year lows. Already there have been food riots in Mexico and reports that the poor are feeling the strain all over the world....According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, the main reason is the demand for ethanol: the alcohol used for motor fuel, which can be made from both maize and wheat.
Farmers will respond to better prices by planting more, but it is not clear that they can overtake the booming demand for biofuel. Even if they do, they will catch up only by ploughing virgin habitat.
Already we know that biofuel is worse for the planet than petroleum. The UN has just published a report suggesting that 98% of the natural rainforest in Indonesia will be degraded or gone by 2022. Just five years ago, the same agencies predicted that this wouldn't happen until 2032. But they reckoned without the planting of palm oil to turn into biodiesel for the European market. This is now the main cause of deforestation there and it is likely soon to become responsible for the extinction of the orang utan in the wild. But it gets worse. As the forests are burnt, both the trees and the peat they sit on are turned into carbon dioxide. A report by the Dutch consultancy Delft Hydraulics shows that every tonne of palm oil results in 33 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, or ten times as much as petroleum produces. I feel I need to say that again. Biodiesel from palm oil causes TEN TIMES as much climate change as ordinary diesel. [...]
The reason governments are so enthusiastic about biofuels is that they don't upset drivers. They appear to reduce the amount of carbon from our cars, without requiring new taxes. It's an illusion sustained by the fact that only the emissions produced at home count towards our national total. The forest clearance in Malaysia doesn't increase our official impact by a gram.
In February the European Commission was faced with a straight choice between fuel efficiency and biofuels. It had intended to tell car companies that the average carbon emission from new cars in 2012 would be 120 grams per kilometre. After heavy lobbying by Angela Merkel on behalf of her car manufacturers, it caved in and raised the limit to 130 grams. It announced that it would make up the shortfall by increasing the contribution from biofuel.
The British government says it "will require transport fuel suppliers to report on the carbon saving and sustainability of the biofuels they supply." But it will not require them to do anything. It can't: its consultants have already shown that if it tries to impose wider environmental standards on biofuels, it will fall foul of world trade rules. And even "sustainable" biofuels merely occupy the space that other crops now fill, displacing them into new habitats. It promises that one day there will be a "second generation" of biofuels, made from straw or grass or wood. But there are still major technical obstacles. By the time the new fuels are ready, the damage will have been done.
We need a moratorium on all targets and incentives for biofuels, until a second generation of fuels can be produced for less than it costs to make fuel from palm oil or sugarcane. Even then, the targets should be set low and increased only cautiously. I suggest a five-year freeze. [...]
You can join the campaign at www.biofuelwatch.org.uk. [Emphasis added]
Like addicts everywhere, we pretend not to see the damage our addiction does. And biofuels make denial easy. They seem so green. And who really knows what's going on in Indonesia or the Amazon, anyway? Out of sight, out of mind. Out of our minds is more like it.
We do what we do because we are too lazy and too greedy to increase fuel efficiency, drive smaller vehicles, use public transportation. It's too much trouble. We'd rather starve the world's poor, strip off the last remaining rainforests, use the atmosphere for our sewer.
Not always intentionally, perhaps. Many people want to do the right thing (at least if it's not too inconvenient), and fuel from plants sounds like it ought to be the right thing. But just because something sounds green doesn't mean it is. Good intentions alone are worth nothing. We are responsible for the consequences of our actions. We have to realistically assess (take a fearless inventory of) the net effect of whatever steps we take from here on out. We have to determine if they do more harm than good. We have to stop kidding ourselves. We no longer have a lot of room for error.