Biodiesel Not Sustainable: Will Starve The Poor
The Guardian has published an article by Georges Monbiot which discusses the implications of widespread use of "biofuels", as advocated by several environmentalists. Biofuels are fuels grown as agricultural crops such as rape, soy, oilpalms, sunflowers or peanuts.
In his article, titled "Feeding Cars, Not People", Monbiot predicts that the use of agriculture for fuel production will have a disastrous impact on the food supply for the people of this world. Such use will cause "a global humanitarian disaster", says Monbiot, adding that "the market responds to money, not need. People who own cars have more money than people at risk of starvation. In a contest between their demand for fuel and poor people's demand for food, the car-owners win every time."
In a world where millions of people go hungry, it would indeed seem ridiculous to restrict food production by dedicating prime agricultural land to making fuels. There must be other alternatives and indeed many researchers in the "free energy" field will tell you that they have just the contraption to fit your need. That may well be, but when you ask where to buy it, more often than not you get a request for some additional funding and time to "iron out the last bugs". With oil running short, a serious look for alternative methods of energy production would really be in order.
One thing is for sure: biodiesel will not be the world wide solution it is promoted to be. Here's Monbiot's take on biofuels and their social implications:
Fuel for nought
The adoption of biofuels would be a humanitarian and environmental disaster
Tuesday November 23, 2004
(Original in The Guardian)
If human beings were without sin, we would still live in an imperfect world. Adam Smith's notion that by pursuing his own interest, a man "frequently promotes that of ... society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it", and Karl Marx's picture of a society in which "the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all" are both mocked by one obvious constraint. The world is finite. This means that when one group of people pursues its own interests, it damages the interests of others.
It is hard to think of a better example than the current enthusiasm for biofuels. These are made from plant oils or crop wastes or wood, and can be used to run cars and buses and lorries. Burning them simply returns to the atmosphere the carbon that the plants extracted while they were growing. So switching from fossil fuels to biodiesel and bioalcohol is now being promoted as the solution to climate change.
Next month, the British government will have to set a target for the amount of transport fuel that will come from crops. The European Union wants 2% of the oil we use to be biodiesel by the end of next year, rising to 6% by 2010 and 20% by 2020. To try to meet these targets, the government has reduced the tax on biofuels by 20p a litre, while the EU is paying farmers an extra €45 a hectare to grow them.
Everyone seems happy about this. The farmers and the chemicals industry can develop new markets, the government can meet its commitments to cut carbon emissions, and environmentalists can celebrate the fact that plant fuels reduce local pollution as well as global warming. Unlike hydrogen fuel cells, biofuels can be deployed straightaway. This, in fact, was how Rudolf Diesel expected his invention to be used. When he demonstrated his engine at the World Exhibition in 1900, he ran it on peanut oil. "The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today," he predicted. "But such oils may become in course of time as important as petroleum." Some enthusiasts are predicting that if fossil fuel prices continue to rise, he will soon be proved right.
I hope not. Those who have been promoting these fuels are well-intentioned, but wrong. They are wrong because the world is finite. If biofuels take off, they will cause a global humanitarian disaster.
Used as they are today, on a very small scale, they do no harm. A few thousand greens in the United Kingdom are running their cars on used chip fat. But recycled cooking oils could supply only 100,000 tonnes of diesel a year in this country, equivalent to one 380th of our road transport fuel.
It might also be possible to turn crop wastes such as wheat stubble into alcohol for use in cars - the Observer ran an article about this on Sunday. I'd like to see the figures, but I find it hard to believe that we will be able to extract more energy than we use in transporting and processing straw. But the EU's plans, like those of all the enthusiasts for biolocomotion, depend on growing crops specifically for fuel. As soon as you examine the implications, you discover that the cure is as bad as the disease.
Road transport in the UK consumes 37.6m tonnes of petroleum products a year. The most productive oil crop that can be grown in this country is rape. The average yield is 3-3.5 tonnes per hectare. One tonne of rapeseed produces 415kg of biodiesel. So every hectare of arable land could provide 1.45 tonnes of transport fuel.
To run our cars and buses and lorries on biodiesel, in other words, would require 25.9m hectares. There are 5.7m in the UK. Even the EU's more modest target of 20% by 2020 would consume almost all our cropland.
If the same thing is to happen all over Europe, the impact on global food supply will be catastrophic: big enough to tip the global balance from net surplus to net deficit. If, as some environmentalists demand, it is to happen worldwide, then most of the arable surface of the planet will be deployed to produce food for cars, not people.
This prospect sounds, at first, ridiculous. Surely if there were unmet demand for food, the market would ensure that crops were used to feed people rather than vehicles? There is no basis for this assumption. The market responds to money, not need. People who own cars have more money than people at risk of starvation. In a contest between their demand for fuel and poor people's demand for food, the car-owners win every time. Something very much like this is happening already. Though 800 million people are permanently malnourished, the global increase in crop production is being used to feed animals: the number of livestock on earth has quintupled since 1950. The reason is that those who buy meat and dairy products have more purchasing power than those who buy only subsistence crops.
Green fuel is not just a humanitarian disaster; it is also an environmental disaster. Those who worry about the scale and intensity of today's agriculture should consider what farming will look like when it is run by the oil industry. Moreover, if we try to develop a market for rapeseed biodiesel in Europe, it will immediately develop into a market for palm oil and soya oil. Oilpalm can produce four times as much biodiesel per hectare as rape, and it is grown in places where labour is cheap. Planting it is already one of the world's major causes of tropical forest destruction. Soya has a lower oil yield than rape, but the oil is a by-product of the manufacture of animal feed. A new market for it will stimulate an industry that has already destroyed most of Brazil's cerrado (one of the world's most biodiverse environments) and much of its rainforest.
It is shocking to see how narrow the focus of some environmentalists can be. At a meeting in Paris last month, a group of scientists and greens studying abrupt climate change decided that Tony Blair's two big ideas - tackling global warming and helping Africa - could both be met by turning Africa into a biofuel production zone. This strategy, according to its convenor, "provides a sustainable development path for the many African countries that can produce biofuels cheaply". I know the definition of sustainable development has been changing, but I wasn't aware that it now encompasses mass starvation and the eradication of tropical forests. Last year, the British parliamentary committee on environment, food and rural affairs, which is supposed to specialise in joined-up thinking, examined every possible consequence of biofuel production - from rural incomes to skylark numbers - except the impact on food supply.
We need a solution to the global warming caused by cars, but this isn't it. If the production of biofuels is big enough to affect climate change, it will be big enough to cause global starvation.
The most destructive crop on earth is no solution to the energy crisis
By promoting biodiesel as a substitute, we have missed the fact that it is worse than the fossil-fuel burning it replaces
George Monbiot - Tuesday December 6, 2005
Producing ethanol and biodiesel from corn and other crops is not worth the energy
July 05, 2005 - Turning plants such as corn, soybeans and sunflowers into fuel uses much more energy than the resulting ethanol or biodiesel generates, according to a new Cornell University and University of California-Berkeley study. "There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel," says David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell. "These strategies are not sustainable."
A Simpler, Cheaper Biodiesel Production Process
April 15, 2005 - Washington, D.C. [RenewableEnergyAccess.com] A scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) may have found a new way to remove a costly component of biodiesel production.
Asia Pushes Ahead on Biofuel, Despite Cost
February 28, 2005 - SHANGHAI - Faced with too many crops and not enough oil, Asian governments are promoting biofuels as a way to cut costly fuel imports.
Are you ready for french-fried fuel?
Diesel engines can run on just about anything, including used cooking oil. An entire industry is emerging to provide brave 'biodiesel' pioneers with the ingredients for petroleum-free motoring.
Green diesel: New process makes fuel from plants
Reporting in the June 3 issue of the Journal Science, Steenbock Professor James Dumesic and colleagues detail a four-phase catalytic reactor in which corn and other biomass-derived carbohydrates can be converted to sulfur-free liquid alkanes resulting in an ideal additive for diesel transportation fuel.
All cars will run on 'biofuel' mix by 2010
The Times November 02, 2005
OIL companies are to be forced to add fuel made from crops such as oil seed rape and sugar cane to all petrol and diesel sold in Britain.
French Green Lobby Wary of Biofuel Benefits
January 12, 2006
PARIS - As France races to become Europe's top biofuels maker by 2010, the country's green lobby said on Wednesday that damage caused by intensive farming to produce them could outweigh the clean-burning benefits.
The New Biofuel Republics
Poor developing nations are to feed the voracious appetites of rich countries for biofuels instead of their own hungry masses, and suffer the devastation of their natural forests and biodiversity. Dr. Elizabeth Bravo and Dr. Mae-Wan Ho
Biofuels: Biodevastation, Hunger & False Carbon Credits
Europe's thirst for biofuels is fuelling deforestation and food price hikes, exacerbated by a false accounting system that awards carbon credits to the carbon profligate nations. A mandatory certification scheme for biofuels is needed to protect the earth's most sensitive forest ecosystems, to stabilise climate and to safeguard our food security.
Biofuels Boom Raises Tough Questions
The problem is, ethanol really isn't ready for prime time. The only economical way to make ethanol right now is with corn, which means the burgeoning industry is literally eating America's lunch, not to mention its breakfast and dinner. And though ethanol from corn may have some minor benefits with regard to energy independence, most analysts conclude its environmental benefits are questionable at best.
Scientists Weigh Downside of Palm Oil
Marcel Silvius, a climate expert at Wetlands International in the Netherlands, led a team that compared the benefits of palm oil to the ecological harm from destroying virgin Asian rain forests to develop lucrative new plantations. His conclusion: "As a biofuel, it's a failure."
The four-year study found that 600 million tons of carbon dioxide seep into the air each year from the drained swamps. Another 1.4 billion tons go up in smoke from fires lit to clear rain forest for plantations - smoke that often shrouds Singapore and Malaysia in an impenetrable haze for weeks at a time. Together, those 2 billion tons of CO2 account for 8 percent of the world's fossil fuel emissions, the report said.
April 2007: If we want to save the planet, we need a five-year freeze on biofuels
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. "In 2004 I warned, on these pages, 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 richer than those who are in danger of starvation. It would also lead to the destruction of rainforests and other important habitats."
H2CAR could fuel entire U.S. transportation sector
A new process which combines carbon from biomass and hydrogen from wind or other renewable energy sources could supply the liquid hydrocarbons needed for transportation without over-use of land area to grow biomass instead of food - until we come upon a better idea that is.
U.N.: Food prices could offset biofuels benefits
Biofuels like ethanol can help reduce global warming and create jobs for the rural poor, but the benefits may be offset by serious environmental problems and increased food prices for the hungry, the United Nations concluded in its first major report on bioenergy.
Biofuels more harmful to humans than petrol and diesel, warn scientists
"The dialogue so far on biofuels has been pretty much focused on greenhouse gases alone," said David Tilman, a professor at the department of ecology, evolution and behaviour at the University of Minnesota. "And yet we felt there were many other impacts that were positive or negative not being included. We wanted to expand the analysis from greenhouse gases to at least one other item and we chose health impacts."
The health problems caused by conventional fuels are well studied and stem from soot particles and other pollution produced when they are burned. With biofuels, the problems are caused by particles given off during their growth and manufacture.
70 Percent More Energy Required to Make Ethanol than Actually is in Ethanol: Cornell
Neither increases in government subsidies to corn-based ethanol fuel nor hikes in the price of petroleum can overcome what one Cornell agricultural scientist calls a fundamental input-yield problem: It takes more energy to make ethanol from grain than the combustion of ethanol produces.
"Abusing our precious croplands to grow corn for an energy-inefficient process that yields low-grade automobile fuel amounts to unsustainable, subsidized food burning," said the Cornell professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
posted by Sepp Hasslberger on Tuesday November 23 2004
updated on Sunday March 8 2009
URL of this article:
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