What is the environmental cost of going green?


by Simon Creer

Derived from biomass; recently living organisms such as corn, soybean, sugar cane or palm oil, burning biofuels such as bioethanol or biodiesel markedly reduces the carbon emissions from motor vehicles. Biofuels are now a common sight on petrol station forecourts and there is even a super car produced by specialty manufacturer Koenigsegg that boasts excellent performance from its biofuel powered engine. The green fuel agenda appears to have gained momentum. However, this apparently green development has a darker side that could cause untold damage to our already fragile planet

George W Bush, in his 2006 State of the Union address, set a target of replacing 75 per cent of U.S. oil imports with biofuel by 2025. The EU have set a similar, if more modest target of 10 per cent biofuel use by vehicles by 2020. On the face of it this is a positive embracing of the green agenda in reducing greenhouse gases. Saab's UK boss Jonathon Nash is quoted as saying that a five percent use of biofuels today would be equivalent to taking one million cars off the road.

In practice the burning of biofuels enacts a short carbon cycle by releasing, when burnt, only the carbon that was trapped in the plant during growth. This does offer a carbon neutral alternative for running a car. The Green Left Online (www.greenleft.org.au) indicates "when biofuels are burnt they do not release extra greenhouse gases from long-buried sources as does the burning of petrol, coal and gas. The greenhouse gases that are released from biofuel use were already in the atmosphere before they were trapped in their crop plant."

Global Impact of Biofuels 

George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian at the end of March, called for a five year freeze on the production of bio-fuels. He believes, "the governments using biofuel to tackle global warming know that it causes more harm than good. But they plough on regardless." He imagines, "biofuels would set up competition for food between cars and people."

The BBC reported in January that corn prices hit a ten year high due to a surge in demand for Ethanol. This has meant that many countries are paying inflated prices for their staple foods. In Mexico people are paying twenty five percent more for Tortillas than in previous years. The BBC website quoted Mexican Economy Minister Eduardo Sojo saying that with more US corn being diverted into ethanol production, supply was dwindling. George Monbiot also indicates that stockpiles of maize and wheat have reached a 25 year low. It would appear that people are already losing the competition with cars.

Further to these human consequences there is a very real ecological threat from the cultivation and production of biofuels. The amount of available arable land for the growth of biofuel is limited and any attempt to supply the growing demand will require either a large diversion of crop from food production as we are seeing in the US and Mexico or clearing further areas of natural forests.
The institute of science in society on February 28 2006 in an article "Biofuels for oil addicts" states, "realistic estimates show that making biofuels form energy crops requires more fossil fuel energy than they yield and do not substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions when all the inputs are accounted for."

These figures compound the global catastrophe waiting to happen if the cultivation of crops for biofuel expands unabated. The Green Left goes on to say; "The sustainability problem with biofuels is two fold - the expanding biofuels industry will cause deforestation and crop displacement in large parts of the world. And it won't even be able to make enough fuel to seriously impact our fossil fuel use."

Many are concerned that soaring demand for biofuel crops will result in deforestation, monoculture farming and a severe reduction in the planets ability to absorb carbon dioxide. Brazil leads the world in production and use of bioethanol making 16 million litres per year from its sugar cane industry but this is coming at the cost of vast swathes of the Amazon rainforest, one of the largest absorbers of greenhouse gases on the planet, capable of absorbing 100-120 billion tonnes of carbon. The more primary forest lost to cultivated sugar cane land the less carbon will be absorbed from the atmosphere.

The Stern review indicates that agriculture and deforestation account for at least one third of greenhouse gases. A report on the website www.biofuelwatch.org.uk in April 2007 outlines the dangers of biofuel crop cultivation. The report states "Our ability to stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere and avoid the worst impacts of global warming depends on the ability of our ecosystems to continue functioning as carbon sinks." A carbon sink is an area that has the natural ability to soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. These include the oceans and the forests. The suggestion of the report is that removing primary forests, or rainforests, with a high capacity for carbon absorption in favour of biofuel crops will seriously inhibit eco-systems' capacity to act as a carbon sink.

"Primary forests in Indonesia," the biofuelwatch report continues, "have been proven to hold 306 tonnes of carbon per hectare, whereas mature palm oil plantations (a primary source of bioethanol) hold 63 tonnes per hectare." There is then a clear discrepancy in the potential to remove carbon from the atmosphere if forests are lost in favour of so-called "green" crops. George Monbiot highlights a report by Dutch consultancy firm Delft Hydraulics which shows that every tonne of palm oil results in thirty three tonnes of CO2 or ten times as much as petrol. So-called green biofuels have the potential to do far more harm than good.

Biofuelwatch offers a stark warning. "There is a proven link between monoculture expansion and deforestation," the report indicates, "and we know that further deforestation can result in non-linear feedbacks which would be impossible to stop and which would in the worst case, push global warning beyond human control and devastate agriculture and the lives of hundreds of millions of people." If ecosystems collapse or are destroyed, then there would be no way of stopping climate change running out of control.

Biofuelwatch also hints at the reason governments are so keen to adopt biofuels even in the face of the ecological and human threats they present. "The reason," it suggests "governments are so enthusiastic about biofuels is that they don't upset drivers. They appear to reduce the amount of carbon from our cars without requiring new taxes. It's an illusion sustained by the fact that only the emissions produced at home count towards our national total. The forest clearance doesn't increase our official impact by the gram." The issue then is being legitimately shifted beyond our borders and seemingly becoming someone else's problem.

All this is worth considering as biofuels proliferate across the domestic markets.

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