February 17, 2008
MY PREOCCUPATION WITH BIOFUELS
To those that do not know me personally, I am an environment stomping dinosaur, whose penchant for large, powerful engines and motoring relics, send waves of Prius owners to their graves. My driveway will flatly dispute any defense I may put together, so I will choose to refute that label at some later date. For this post let us assume that underneath all my capriccios, I am a concerned and active environmentalist (which I am!).
I would like to vent my perplexity about the state of bio-fuels in general and the direction it is taking within the Philippines, which actually models the region. The term “bio-fuel” refers to the fuel generated from plant sources that can be used to substitute for petroleum. In the United States the majority would be corn based, fuel ethanol/bio-diesel and in the Philippines, sugar and coconut based fuel ethanol/coco-bio-diesel.
We are all aware of the environmental benefits of bio-fuels, which are supposed to have a dramatic impact on our environment (in the long run) However, several years into this world of bio-fuels, we are starting to learn and understand that perhaps this is not as rosy an alternative as we all thought. In the United States, Timothy Searchinger (Princeton University) has found that corn-based ethanol would double greenhouse gas emissions for the next thirty years. This is due mostly to the sudden decline of the vegetation that once inhabited the cleared fields now being used by corn. You did not really think those greenhouse gas-gobbling trees you had to clear for your cornfields were sitting idle? At some point of course, the “incremental sequestration of CO2 in their roots [the corn fields] will match the CO2 once stored by cleared vegetation,” cutting emissions. Estimated time frame for this shift—decades.
Let us not forget the energy that is needed to grow, harvest, and refine the fuel. This goes beyond the processing plants, what about the effect of the fertilizer? The logistics involved in shipping it? If you actually compare all the effects of going green and not just the immediate processing effects, just how large is the improvement? Are you aware of the increased levels of nitrous oxides in the atmosphere due to ethanol as an oxygenate? Or perhaps the economic challenges brought forth when sugar or corn is now considered more valuable, increasing the prices on what used to be a basic commodity? This last point especially terrifies me, because if you follow the logical progression of economics:
[Farmer grows sugar for food. Farmer gets better price for sugar and sells it for fuel instead. Sugar prices go up, demand exceeds supply. Farmer clears rainforest to grow more sugar for fuel and food. Government tells him he is doing a service to the country and the environment. The Jolly Jetsetter stares incredulously...]
This economic effect is no joke. In poorer, developing countries, higher food prices can very well lead to starvation and public unrest. China has put a stop to ethanol plant construction as it tries to solve the threat it poses to the country’s food security. In Mexico the increase in tortilla (corn based) prices have led to heated public protests. Lester Brown (president of Earth Policy Institute) sums it up nicely when he says that we are creating an “epic competition between 800 million people with automobiles and the 2 billion poorest people.”
I often feel that in our sudden urgency to “go green” we are rushing into projects that may not be the best long-term solution for our world. New government regulations and green tax breaks are making it extremely appealing for companies to clean up their act, but in doing so are we creating a false sense of progression? It can be said that in many first world nations, growing bio-fuels has become a huge government handout to farmers getting beaten by china, chemical companies, seed companies, environmentally supportive companies, and so forth. Yes, we are all in the same boat together, but why do I have this feeling that countries like the Philippines will get the butt-end of this environmental drive. Where our lands are cleared to grow crops and our industries geared to remain reliant on the demands of first world nations.
The thing is, I cannot think of a reasonably viable alternative at the moment. Which is why I am so preoccupied with this industry and at least a tangible solution. We have plenty of other bio fuels that can be explored, which may yield more gain with less of a fall out. Algae can be grown on ponds, which will not take up farmland. Solar power and wind technology has gotten significantly cheaper, making it feasible alternative. A focus on hybrid and hydrogen engines in vehicles can dramatically reduce our emissions (GM and Toyota have an excellent future in this). David Morris has even stated, "if Americans reduce our input of sugar, we could make 2 billion more gallons of ethanol and help overcome our obesity problem.” Certainly a bit off center, but it makes a clear point.
So, as I watch this industry develop and smaller industries pop up around it (carbon credits being one), it is encouraging to know that at the least, the public is aware and concerned. Perhaps if I mull it over a bit longer, over a deep highland malt, I may be able to offer at least a semblance of a suggestion.