Biofuels - the answer to the wrong question

October 20, 2006

Biofuels such as ethanol have been presented by alternative energy entrepreneurs and many environmentalists as a "clean, green" alternative to fossil fuels. But recently a growing chorus of scientists have warned of the dangers of biofuels.

On the face of it, biofuels are a preferable alternative to fossil fuels, particularly as they are "carbon-neutral". This means that when they are burned they do not release extra greenhouse gases from long-buried sources as does the burning of petroleum, coal and natural gas. The greenhouse gases that are released from biofuel use were already in the atmosphere before they were trapped in their crop plant.

So far so good, but life is not so simple. One of the first criticisms of the use of biofuels was made by the London-based Institute of Science in Society (ISIS) in a February 28 article ("Biofuels for oil addicts: cure worse than the addiction") written by biochemist Dr Mae-Wan Ho.

According to Ho, not only do biofuels have many serious problems if applied on too large a scale, but these problems shed light on the real challenges before us if we want to create a sustainable society.

Biofuels rely on growing crops. Brazil has for 30 years been using large amounts of ethanol to fuel motor vehicles. This is relatively easy for Brazil, which has large amounts of sugar cane that is readily fermented into ethanol. On the other hand, in the US corn is also being developed as an ethanol source. This requires a much more complicated chemical procedure, requiring extra energy input.

Just growing these crops requires energy input — current farming practices rely on artificial fertilisers which are created using large amounts of electric power, generated by burning fossil fuels. Thus, biofuels indirectly add to the atmosphere's greenhouse gas levels. The process of refining and extracting biofuels also requires electricity generation.

In a December 6, 2005, article ("Worse than fossil fuel") posted on his website, British journalist George Monbiot noted that "in 2003, the biologist Jeffrey Dukes calculated that the fossil fuels we burn in one year were made from organic matter 'containing ... more than 400 times the net primary productivity of the planet's current biota'. In plain English, this means that every year we use four centuries' worth of plants and animals."

If biofuels are to replace fossil fuels, this will require either a huge diversion of cropland from food production or clearing further areas of natural forest to make way for biofuel plantations.

In a March 7 article ("The New Biofuel Republics") on the ISIS website, Dr Ho and Ecuadorean biologist Dr Elizabeth Bravo argue that the "industrialised countries are looking to the Third World to feed their [fuel] addiction: the land is there for the taking as is cheap labour, and the environmental damages of large plantations, biofuels extraction and refining can all be outsourced, exactly as they were in the extraction of crude oil ... there simply isn't sufficient arable land on which to grow all the biofuel crops needed to satisfy the voracious appetites of the industrialised nations."

Clearing forests releases more greenhouse gases, and displacement of crops puts further strain on the food security and biodiversity of poor countries.

The sustainability problem with biofuels is twofold — 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 on fossil-fuel use. The main benefit, it seems, will be to key energy companies' profits.

Technological solutions to replace fossil-fuel use are built on the assumption of an energy-dense equivalent. As Monbiot notes: "The idea that we can simply replace this fossil legacy — and the extraordinary power densities it gives us — with ambient energy is the stuff of science fiction. There is simply no substitute for cutting back" on energy use.

The alternative technologies may be elegant, profitable, easy substitutes, and many other things besides — but the evidence suggests that such narrow techno-fixes will not make a serious environmental difference.

The habit that really needs to be kicked is not simply fossil-fuel use — it is the massive overuse of energy that fossil fuels has made possible. In particular, the whole world economy is dominated by the oil and car industries — the vast auto-industrial complex, including industries that feed it like metal-ore mining and processing, and spin-offs like plastics, insurance and road-building.

It has been well-documented that the corporations that dominate these industries have re-shaped the whole economy to serve their profit-making interests. In one of the most blatant examples, General Motors was found by a US Senate sub-committee in 1949 to have bought and closed hundreds of electric tramlines across major US cities to replace them with GM-made petrol-fuelled buses. Subject to the dictates of such powerful interests, public transport has been deliberately under-developed, forcing people to buy cars.

Could the auto-industrial complex really change its entire technological basis away from the fossil fuels? Even if enough renewable energy could now be harnessed, the capitalist economy requires continuing growth in the production and sale of goods to survive. With limited resources, even renewable energy, is continuous growth in commodity production a serious option? A more rational option is to examine what uses of energy are socially useful and what are not. But that cannot be done as long as society's economic life is subordinated to the drive for corporate profitability rather than collective human welfare.

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