Government’s Biofuel Policy Dangerous

Crossposted from christindal.ca. See also Adriane Carr's Biofuel Post.

"My fear is not that people will stop talking about climate change. My fear is that they will talk us to Kingdom Come." - George Monbiot

Just a few years ago, the biggest threat to our society's survival was our willing blindness towards the crisis facing us. Now that we're aware of that crisis, the biggest threat to our survival is our willingness to believe that there are easy answers; that we're "on the right track;" that our political leaders are starting to "get it." This is the threat of greenwash, intentional or otherwise, and it can't be underestimated.

Last week, Canada's New-ish-like Government(TM) announced a $1.5 billion subsidy for biofuel production. You'd be forgiven for thinking that sounds like a positive, "step in the right direction." In reality, it's extremely dangerous and wrongheaded. In short, while some biofuel policies make sense, biofuels from crops like the ones targeted by Stephen Harper's plan (corn, wheat, soy) lead to increasingly higher market prices for those crops, setting up a competition between cars and people for who gets to be fed by the Earth. Further, they're likely to exacerbate, not mitigate, the climate crisis. And it's happening already.

The fundamental idea behind biofuel is simple, as is its fundamental flaw. Fossil fuels comprise concentrated energy stored up by organic material (plants and animals) exposed to intense heat and pressure over the course of hundreds of millions of years. Since our dependence on fossil fuel energy is now becoming problematic and unrealistic for at least two major reasons (climate change and peak oil), the thinking behind biofuel is that we should just cut out the middle man and convert organic matter into hydrocarbons ourselves. It should be obvious, however, that we can never hope to produce biofuel rapidly enough to match our consumption of fossil fuels, since they took hundreds of millions of years to accumulate and we've already used up about half of that supply in just the past century.

What's less obvious, perhaps, is that more than simply inadequate, this strategy is actually destructive. The $1.5 billion proposed by the Conservatives is an attempt to meet their own requirement for 5% ethanol content in gasoline by 2010. Europe has a similar target of 5.75% of transport power by 2010 and 10% by 2020. The United States is looking to use 35 billion gallons of biofuel a year. Problem is, according to the International Herald Tribute these targets "far exceed the agricultural capacities of the industrial North. Europe would need to plant 70 percent of its farmland with fuel crops. The entire corn and soy harvest of the United States would need to be processed as ethanol and biodiesel." Of course, no American president or European leader is going to allow that to happen. Therefore, if these targets were actually met, they would likely have to be met by destroying the food systems of the South. The poor would go hungry while the wealthy pumped diverted human food into their SUVs.

Think this sounds implausible? It's happening now:

"CBC News, May 22 2007 - The rising demand for corn as a source of ethanol-blended fuel is largely to blame for increasing food costs around the world, and Canada is not immune, say industry experts.

Food prices rose 10 per cent in 2006, "driven mainly by surging prices of corn, wheat and soybean oil in the second part of the year," the International Monetary Fund said in a report.

"Looking ahead, rising demand for biofuels will likely cause the prices of corn and soybean oil to rise further," the authors wrote in the report released last month."

What's more, the degree to which biofuels can contribute to solving the climate crisis has been greatly exaggerated. In fact, the wrong kind of biofuel policy could even make the climate crisis worse. According to the BBC, a recent United Nations report found that "demand for biofuels has accelerated the clearing of primary forest for palm plantations, particularly in southeast Asia. This destruction of ecosystems which remove carbon from the atmosphere can lead to a net increase in emissions."

Even once the initial conversion of wilderness to farmland is complete, biofuels grown by current agribusiness methods require large inputs of fossil fuel energy, which defeats the purpose. As a result, the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) is very weak. According to a U.S. government report, the EROEI for ethanol grown from corn is 1.34. In other words, it takes approximately three barrels of ethanol to produce four. And that's the optimistic outlook. A study out of Cornell University found that the production of biofuels actually results in a net energy loss.

"In terms of energy output compared with energy input for ethanol production, the study found that:

  • corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced;
  • switch grass requires 45 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced; and
  • wood biomass requires 57 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.

In terms of energy output compared with the energy input for biodiesel production, the study found that:

  • soybean plants requires 27 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced, and
  • sunflower plants requires 118 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced."


Normally, you would expect the market to sort at least some of that out, since biofuels that actually lose energy would not be economically viable, right? Unless of course, the government subsidizes them to keep the price artificially low. (Oh wait...crap.)

Despite all this, I tend to think that most people pushing for biofuels are well-intentioned. George Monbiot, on the other hand, begins a column published recently in the Guardian titled A Lethal Solution by saying:

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. But they plough on regardless.

He goes on to point out that "a report by the Dutch consultancy Delft Hydraulics shows that...biodiesel from palm oil causes up to TEN TIMES [caps his] as much climate change as ordinary diesel."

Now here's where this gets really hard to follow: not all biofuels are bad. The same UN report cited above also concluded that "using biomass for combined heat and power (CHP), rather than for transport fuels or other uses, is the best option for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the next decade - and also one of the cheapest." The Green Party of Canada also supports investments in cellulosic ethanol, since it doesn't set up the same competition between people and cars for food (a competition which, as Monbiot points out, "people would necessarily lose: those who can afford to drive are, by definition, richer than those who are in danger of starvation"). A good shorthand then, perhaps, is that we shouldn't be making car-food out of people-food, and that we should focus our biomass efforts on CHP instead of as replacements for transport fuels like gasoline and diesel.

It may seem like asking a lot for us laypeople to be able to tell the difference. Even so, in a democracy it's our responsibility to figure it out. We can't get the right solutions out of government unless we know which governments (in waiting) are offering them up.

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Farmers will hate you, passionately

Lambton Kent Middlesex EDA (SW Ontario)
If you see a rise in the price of the crops they grow as a bad outcome, and you let that point of view get around, we have no hope of winning any seat in farm country.

The objective should long since have been to raise the price of food crops so that there would be no temptation to think of using them for bio-fuels. Our present temptation to use say corn to produce ethanol is to get rid of the mountain of corn that has depressed corn prices for decades.

Once the price of crops that can be used for bio-fuels rises just a bit, the economics of bio-fuels is seen for what it is, a means of dumping product to keep prices up.

Yes, the consumer will 'suffer' from having food prices a bit higher. That has to be part of the objective, not a nasty side effect.

Lambton Kent Middlesex EDA (SW Ontario)

Food prices must rise

I agree fully with Donald on this one. Rising crop prices should not be seen as a bad thing - in Canada or globally.

Now, suddenly rising food prices can be a shock. We need to watch out for that, and be ready to help those worst affected. But in the long run, higher crop prices will be good in any number of ways.

Over the past century, the trend has been for crop prices to drop in real terms. This has had a number of negative results:

- Most of what you pay at the supermarket is for processing, distribution, transportation, etc., not crops - cheaper crops have made space for way too much transshipment and processing. The average distance that food on your plate has travelled is staggering.

- Food is so cheap that we feed massive amounts of it to livestock (perhaps 1/3 or more of global grain crops go to livestock, for example) to produce huge amounts of cheap, unhealthy meat which is bad for our bodies and the environment.

- Farmers in 3rd world countries have lost income because cheap, imported staples undersell locally-grown traditional crops in their local markets (this is part of why local subsistence crop production has dropped) - as a result, traditional farmers become poor and lose their land or can't afford to farm it.

- Farmers in Canada have an average farm income at or below zero - they only survive due to off-farm income or government subsidies.

- People in the developed world waste large amounts of food, much of which then ends up in landfills producing methane & leachate.

When stories bleat about "food riots in Mexico due to rising corn prices due to increased ethanol production" you should ask yourself: why do peasants in Mexico need to eat American corn? Wasn't corn invented in Mexico, and didn't those peasants grow it for themselves for thousands of years? Doesn't Mexico have a longer growing season and lower farm labour costs? The answer is that subsidized (cheap) American corn undersells indigenous Mexican corn, so the peasants stopped growing it and started buying it - rendering themselves vulnerable to such price swings. (Of course, there are many other problems contributing to Mexican poverty. Addressing them would also reduce food-price-related woes.)

Rising grain prices won't hurt Canadians much. Of the $2 you pay for a loaf of bread or box of cereal, only pennies went to buy the grain. If grain cost doubled, your cost would go up only by a few cents. Grain-fed meat, of course, will get more expensive - feed is a larger component of that cost. So we'll eat less meat, and farmers may even go back to grass-fed and pasturing like Nature intended instead of force-feeding cows & chickens things they were never designed to eat. Would that be so bad?

But increased food prices can also help those in poor nations. With less surplus grain to go around, we won't be dumping it on their markets in ways that destroy their local economies. They may even go back to selling some to us at a profit - so we'll be using trade, not aid, to boost their economies.

If you looked at a typical family budget 100 years ago, the proportion spent on food was much more than today. Today's food is cheap by those standards. So what have we done with all the money we save on food? We buy a lot of extra stuff that just ends up cluttering up our houses and landfills. As food once again becomes a larger portion of our household budget, we'll have to start cutting back on how much we spend on other items. Myself, I think that if we have to spend more money on food grown by Canadian farmers, meaning we have less to spend on driving around and buying junk made in China, that won't be a bad thing at all.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins
Barrie, ON

The views I express on this blog are purely my own and should not be construed to represent the official position of the Green Party of Canada - the same goes for all other people's posts & comments.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins, Barrie ON - although I'm on Cabinet (Nat'l Rev. and Ecol. Fiscal Reform), views here are my own and may not reflect official GPC positions. Please visit www.ErichtheGreen.ca

Moratorium on wooden toys

Many of the dire warnings against biofuel made by Monbiot and others are really pointing out flaws in our corporate, globalized, industrial economy, not flaws inherent to biofuels themselves.

Now, it is simply impossible for biofuels to replace the current amount of fossil fuel we use. But that's no reason to spurn them. We need to cut back our use of fossil fuel by about 90% by mid-century. Having done that, we could replace that last 10% with sustainably-grown biofuels and go oil-free, or we could use them to replace the previous 10%, requiring only an 80% reduction.

Biofuels, like anything else, can be done well or done badly. That they can be done badly is no reason to rule them out. Allow me to indulge in a satirical analogy to make my point.

Traditional wooden toys are seen as a premium product over today's common plastic, battery-operated toy cavalcade. Many Greens would prefer that we go back to that kind of toy. But wait, that would actually be disastrous! Why?

- wooden toys are made from endangered tropical hardwoods!

- trees are illegally cut from Malaysia by poachers, shipped to South America for processing in dirty, dangerous (dark, Satanic) mills, then shipped to China where underage slave labour are forced to carve them day & night, then decorated with toxic lead-based paints; then they are shipped to Wal-mart warehouses and trucked back-and-forth across North America until they are sold at neighbourhood-destroying outlets exploiting vulnerable non-union seniors and students!

- to replace all of our plastic toys would require cutting down the forests of 3 Earths!

Exaggerated, perhaps, but plausible. Therefore, we need an immediate moratorium on wooden toys, right?

No, that would be silly. Because anyone can see that we COULD sustainably harvest Canadian trees, make & sell the toys (featuring non-toxic paints) using well-paid local labour. We don't HAVE to do it the horrible way described above.

The same goes for biofuels. We should use them as only one of many ways to reduce/replace fossil fuel use. We should concentrate on sustainable, local sources. We should make use of waste products, like waste vegetable oil (which powers my 2003 VW bug). We should refuse to import biofuels grown in ways that destroy rainforests. Instead of prodding countries to clear forest to grow palm oil, we should help them grow jatropha on arid land, to reduce soil erosion and retain water while harvesting a berry that makes good biodiesel. (Which can then be used to power their own vehicles instead of ours). Sure, there are countries that will dispossess traditional farmers or clear rainforest to grow biofuels. They are the same countries that do that to grow coffee, bananas, shrimp, or sugar. But we don't suggest a moratorium on bananas or coffee - instead, we push for sustainable, organic, fair-trade crops. Why not push for fair-trade, organic biofuels the same way?

Just yesterday I read an anti-wind-farm article that reported a Chinese wind-farm project that involved forcing farmers off their land to put up turbines - those who protested were arrested or killed by police. Does that mean wind energy is bad? Of course not, it just shows that China has a rather brutal way of doing anything, whether it is building a city, a dam, or a wind farm (or a wooden toy).

Our modern global economy does a lot of things in the wrong way. That just shows we need to be more careful about how we do things - not that we should shy away from new products. Let's do it right.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins
Barrie, ON

The views I express on this blog are purely my own and should not be construed to represent the official position of the Green Party of Canada - the same goes for all other people's posts & comments.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins, Barrie ON - although I'm on Cabinet (Nat'l Rev. and Ecol. Fiscal Reform), views here are my own and may not reflect official GPC positions. Please visit www.ErichtheGreen.ca