We need to rethink all food based biofuels
The lion’s share of biofuel bashing on Grist deals with corn ethanol, because we Americans primarily use gasoline for our cars and ethanol runs fine in them, with few modifications. However, our pals in Europe drive a lot of diesel cars and the biofuel crisis over there revolves primarily around biodiesel. I think it is time we recognize that their problem is also our problem. A comment from Pcarbo alerted me to Monbiot’s latest take on biofuels. He has now gone so far as to propose 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 sugar cane.
I concur. It is time to take this to a new level and start calling for boycotts of biofuels made from food crops. That should wake the bumbling politicians up. And I’m not just talking about corn ethanol. It takes about five acres of soy beans to propel a diesel car the same distance one acre of corn ethanol would propel a gasoline car.
The problem is that a lot of environmental groups are still hesitant to commit to such a stance. The ranks are still split between those who think crop based fuels will be a bridge to better fuels and those who don’t want to see anymore food price increases or ecosystem carbons sinks going under the plow. A year ago biofuels were the hottest thing since sliced bread with many environmental groups, and still is with most.
Some money quotes:
Already we know that biofuel is worse for the planet than petroleum. The UN has just published a report suggesting that 98 percent 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 orangutan in the wild.
But it gets worse. As the forests are burned, 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 10 times as much as petroleum produces. I feel I need to say that again. Biodiesel from palm oil causes 10 times as much climate change as ordinary diesel.
There are similar impacts all over the world. Sugarcane producers are moving into rare scrubland habitats (the cerrado) in Brazil, and soya farmers are ripping up the Amazon rainforests. As President Bush has just signed a biofuel agreement with President Lula, it’s likely to become a lot worse. Indigenous people in South America, Asia and Africa are starting to complain about incursions onto their land by fuel planters. A petition launched by a group called biofuelwatch, begging western governments to stop, has been signed by campaigners from 250 groups.
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.