Government’s Biofuel Policy Dangerous

“My fear is not that people will stop talking about climate change. My fear is that they will talk us to Kingdom Come.” – George Monbiot

Just a few years ago, the biggest threat to our society’s survival was our willing blindness towards the crisis facing us. Now that we’re aware of that crisis, the biggest threat to our survival is our willingness to believe that there are easy answers; that we’re “on the right track;” that our political leaders are starting to “get it.” This is the threat of greenwash, intentional or otherwise, and it can’t be underestimated.

Last week, Canada’s New-ish-like GovernmentTM announced a $1.5 billion subsidy for biofuel production. You’d be forgiven for thinking that sounds like a positive, “step in the right direction.” In reality, it’s extremely dangerous and wrongheaded. In short, while some biofuel policies make sense, biofuels from crops like the ones targeted by Stephen Harper’s plan (corn, wheat, soy) lead to increasingly higher market prices for those crops, setting up a competition between cars and people for who gets to be fed by the Earth. Further, they’re likely to exacerbate, not mitigate, the climate crisis. And it’s happening already.

The fundamental idea behind biofuel is simple, as is its fundamental flaw. Fossil fuels comprise concentrated energy stored up by organic material (plants and animals) exposed to intense heat and pressure over the course of hundreds of millions of years. Since our dependence on fossil fuel energy is now becoming problematic and unrealistic for at least two major reasons (climate change and peak oil), the thinking behind biofuel is that we should just cut out the middle man and convert organic matter into hydrocarbons ourselves. It should be obvious, however, that we can never hope to produce biofuel rapidly enough to match our consumption of fossil fuels, since they took hundreds of millions of years to accumulate and we’ve already used up about half of that supply in just the past century.

What’s less obvious, perhaps, is that more than simply inadequate, this strategy is actually destructive. The $1.5 billion proposed by the Conservatives is an attempt to meet their own requirement for 5% ethanol content in gasoline by 2010. Europe has a similar target of 5.75% of transport power by 2010 and 10% by 2020. The United States is looking to use 35 billion gallons of biofuel a year. Problem is, according to the International Herald Tribute these targets “far exceed the agricultural capacities of the industrial North. Europe would need to plant 70 percent of its farmland with fuel crops. The entire corn and soy harvest of the United States would need to be processed as ethanol and biodiesel.” Of course, no American president or European leader is going to allow that to happen. Therefore, if these targets were actually met, they would likely have to be met by destroying the food systems of the South. The poor would go hungry while the wealthy pumped diverted human food into their SUVs.

Think this sounds implausible? It’s happening now:

CBC News, May 22 2007 – The rising demand for corn as a source of ethanol-blended fuel is largely to blame for increasing food costs around the world, and Canada is not immune, say industry experts.

Food prices rose 10 per cent in 2006, “driven mainly by surging prices of corn, wheat and soybean oil in the second part of the year,” the International Monetary Fund said in a report.

“Looking ahead, rising demand for biofuels will likely cause the prices of corn and soybean oil to rise further,” the authors wrote in the report released last month.

What’s more, the degree to which biofuels can contribute to solving the climate crisis has been greatly exaggerated. In fact, the wrong kind of biofuel policy could even make the climate crisis worse. According to the BBC, a recent United Nations report found that “demand for biofuels has accelerated the clearing of primary forest for palm plantations, particularly in southeast Asia. This destruction of ecosystems which remove carbon from the atmosphere can lead to a net increase in emissions.”

Even once the initial conversion of wilderness to farmland is complete, biofuels grown by current agribusiness methods require large inputs of fossil fuel energy, which defeats the purpose. As a result, the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) is very weak. According to a U.S. government report, the EROEI for ethanol grown from corn is 1.34. In other words, it takes approximately three barrels of ethanol to produce four. And that’s the optimistic outlook. A study out of Cornell University found that the production of biofuels actually results in a net energy loss.

In terms of energy output compared with energy input for ethanol production, the study found that:

  • corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced;
  • switch grass requires 45 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced; and
  • wood biomass requires 57 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.

In terms of energy output compared with the energy input for biodiesel production, the study found that:

  • soybean plants requires 27 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced, and
  • sunflower plants requires 118 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.

Normally, you would expect the market to sort at least some of that out, since biofuels that actually lose energy would not be economically viable, right? Unless of course, the government subsidizes them to keep the price artificially low. (Oh wait…crap.)

Despite all this, I tend to think that most people pushing for biofuels are well-intentioned. George Monbiot, on the other hand, begins a column published recently in the Guardian titled A Lethal Solution by saying:

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.

He goes on to point out that “a report by the Dutch consultancy Delft Hydraulics shows that…biodiesel from palm oil causes up to TEN TIMES [caps his] as much climate change as ordinary diesel.”

Now here’s where this gets really hard to follow: not all biofuels are bad. The same UN report cited above also concluded that “using biomass for combined heat and power (CHP), rather than for transport fuels or other uses, is the best option for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the next decade – and also one of the cheapest.” The Green Party of Canada also supports investments in cellulosic ethanol, since it doesn’t set up the same competition between people and cars for food (a competition which, as Monbiot points out, “people would necessarily lose: those who can afford to drive are, by definition, richer than those who are in danger of starvation”). A good shorthand then, perhaps, is that we shouldn’t be making car-food out of people-food, and that we should focus our biomass efforts on CHP instead of as replacements for transport fuels like gasoline and diesel.

It may seem like asking a lot for us laypeople to be able to tell the difference. Even so, in a democracy it’s our responsibility to figure it out. We can’t get the right solutions out of government unless we know which governments (in waiting) are offering them up.

6 thoughts on “Government’s Biofuel Policy Dangerous

  1. Good point.

    What’s missing here is any mention of sustainable biofuels. At our coop we run on recycled vegetable oil. We use solar thermal for process heat, run our fleet on B100 biodiesel, and return seven renewable BTUs for every one fossil required.

    Monbiot would love it.

    At our Industrial facility we run on chicken fat–again a waste product.

    I applaude your taking a swipe at unsustainable biofuels–but there are stop gap, community powered solutions to consider.

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