Biofuels and other grand failures of thinking locally

SoybusBiofuels started off with such good intentions – energy self-sufficiency, reversing global warming and being green. Yet biofuels are now being blamed for creating much bigger problems than they ever would have solved. How did we get so far into this mess without seeing these problems?

Multiple studies have now shown that producing liquid fuels from food crops and even energy crops, like switchgrass, will not significantly lower the climate impacts of energy use, and may even increase these impacts, while causing massive deforestation and biodiversity losses and driving food prices out of range for billions of people.

The tide has clearly changed on biofuels. Just a few years back, biodiesel in your car was enough to impress even the most jaded eco-geek. It was as green as you could be- living on recycled, solar-powered vegetable oil. But it didn’t seem so cool when it turned out that the cheapest way to make that vegetable oil was to cut down a tropical rainforest and convert it into an oil palm plantation- combining loss of habitat and biodiversity with a nice plume of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere when the forests were cleared. The biodiesel forest clearing is now well under way.

Next it was making ethanol from corn. We’ve got plenty of corn- so why not convert it to ethanol and power our cars with it? Well- it turns out that it takes nearly as much fossil fuel to produce ethanol from corn as is replaced by the ethanol itself. Worse still, that corn must come from someplace- and even with a massive boom in production (putting a lot of land back under the plow), the price of corn will go through the roof as demonstrated by the speculative food crises of the past year or so. A very bad thing if you are one of the landless billions living hand to mouth.

There are many more stories like this- sugar beet ethanol and rapeseed biodiesel in Europe, and even the use of agricultural “wastes” like corn stalks has serious environmental costs- when these are converted into biofuels (or just burned), they are not returned to the soil, where they would have stored carbon in the soil, keeping it out of the atmosphere and sustaining soil quality.

Biofuels may very well be the quickest way to cause massive economic harm to low-income people worldwide while causing deforestation in the tropics and even accelerating global warming. When it comes down to it, replacing fossil fuels with biofuels just creates new demand for agricultural products and productive land and the result is land clearing, the diversion of carbon from ecosystems into the atmosphere, and dramatic increases in food prices. There simply is not enough existing cropland to meet our energy demands, and there never will be. Short of a revolution in converting cellulose-rich wastes from agriculture and the timber industry into liquid fuels, like cellulosic ethanol, there really is no good way to prevent land from being converted to biofuel production when the energy market demand for biomass grows beyond a few percent of total energy demand.