George Monbiot on Bio Fuels

Of more than passing interest given Harper’s ramped up subsidies to ethanol – more of a farm support program than a genuine climate change solution it would seem (though perhaps we should be more supportive of the newer biotechnologies which can convert wood and agricultural wastes to ethanol.)

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,2043724,00.html

If we want to save the planet, we need a five-year freeze on biofuels

Oil produced from plants sets up competition for food between cars and people. People – and the environment – will lose

George Monbiot
Tuesday March 27, 2007
The Guardian

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. In theory, fuels made from plants can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by cars and trucks. Plants absorb carbon as they grow – it is released again when the fuel is burned. By encouraging oil companies to switch from fossil plants to living ones, governments on both sides of the Atlantic claim to be “decarbonising” our transport networks.

In the budget last week, Gordon Brown announced that he would extend the tax rebate for biofuels until 2010. From next year all suppliers in the UK will have to ensure that 2.5% of the fuel they sell is made from plants – if not, they must pay a penalty of 15p a litre. The obligation rises to 5% in 2010. By 2050, the government hopes that 33% of our fuel will come from crops. Last month George Bush announced that he would quintuple the US target for biofuels: by 2017 they should be supplying 24% of the nation’s transport fuel.

So what’s wrong with these programmes? Only that they are a formula for environmental and humanitarian disaster. In 2004 I warned, on these pages, that biofuels would set up a competition for food between cars and people. The people would necessarily lose: those who can afford to drive are richer than those who are in danger of starvation. It would also lead to the destruction of rainforests and other important habitats. I received more abuse than I’ve had for any other column – except for when I attacked the 9/11 conspiracists. I was told my claims were ridiculous, laughable, impossible. Well in one respect I was wrong. I thought these effects wouldn’t materialise for many years. They are happening already.

Since the beginning of last year, the price of maize has doubled. The price of wheat has also reached a 10-year high, while global stockpiles of both grains have reached 25-year lows. Already there have been food riots in Mexico and reports that the poor are feeling the strain all over the world. The US department of agriculture warns that “if we have a drought or a very poor harvest, we could see the sort of volatility we saw in the 1970s, and if it does not happen this year, we are also forecasting lower stockpiles next year”. According to the UN food and agriculture organisation, the main reason is the demand for ethanol: the alcohol used for motor fuel, which can be made from maize and wheat.

Farmers will respond to better prices by planting more, but it is not clear that they can overtake the booming demand for biofuel. Even if they do, they will catch up only by ploughing virgin habitat.

Already we know that biofuel is worse for the planet than petroleum. The UN has just published a report suggesting that 98% of the natural rainforest in Indonesia will be degraded or gone by 2022. Just five years ago, the same agencies predicted that this wouldn’t happen until 2032. But they reckoned without the planting of palm oil to turn into biodiesel for the European market. This is now the main cause of deforestation there and it is likely soon to become responsible for the extinction of the orang-utan in the wild.

But it gets worse. As the forests are burned, both the trees and the peat they sit on are turned into carbon dioxide. A report by the Dutch consultancy Delft Hydraulics shows that every tonne of palm oil results in 33 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, or 10 times as much as petroleum produces. I feel I need to say that again. Biodiesel from palm oil causes 10 times as much climate change as ordinary diesel.

There are similar impacts all over the world. Sugarcane producers are moving into rare scrubland habitats (the cerrado) in Brazil, and soya farmers are ripping up the Amazon rainforests. As President Bush has just signed a biofuel agreement with President Lula, it’s likely to become a lot worse. Indigenous people in South America, Asia and Africa are starting to complain about incursions onto their land by fuel planters. A petition launched by a group called biofuelwatch, begging western governments to stop, has been signed by campaigners from 250 groups.

The British government is well aware that there’s a problem. On his blog last year the environment secretary David Miliband noted that palm oil plantations “are destroying 0.7% of the Malaysian rainforest each year, reducing a vital natural resource (and in the process, destroying the natural habitat of the orang-utan). It is all connected.” Unlike government policy.

The reason 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 in Malaysia doesn’t increase our official impact by a gram.

In February the European commission was faced with a straight choice between fuel efficiency and biofuels. It had intended to tell car companies that the average carbon emission from new cars in 2012 would be 120 grams per kilometre. After heavy lobbying by Angela Merkel on behalf of her car manufacturers, it caved in and raised the limit to 130 grams. It announced that it would make up the shortfall by increasing the contribution from biofuel.

The British government says it “will require transport fuel suppliers to report on the carbon saving and sustainability of the biofuels they supply”. But it will not require them to do anything. It can’t: its consultants have already shown that if it tries to impose wider environmental standards on biofuels, it will fall foul of world trade rules. And even “sustainable” biofuels merely occupy the space that other crops now fill, displacing them into new habitats. It promises that one day there will be a “second generation” of biofuels, made from straw or grass or wood. But there are still major technical obstacles. By the time the new fuels are ready, the damage will have been done.

We need a moratorium on all targets and incentives for biofuels, until a second generation of fuels can be produced for less than it costs to make fuel from palm oil or sugar cane. Even then, the targets should be set low and increased only cautiously. I suggest a five-year freeze.

This would require a huge campaign, tougher than the one which helped to win a five-year freeze on growing genetically modified crops in the UK. That was important – GM crops give big companies unprecedented control over the foodchain. But most of their effects are indirect, while the devastation caused by biofuel is immediate and already visible.

This is why it will be harder to stop: encouraged by government policy, vast investments are now being made by farmers and chemical companies. Stopping them requires one heck of a battle. But it has to be fought.

You can join the campaign at www.biofuelwatch.org.uk. www.monbiot.com

6 comments

  • Whooee! I’m agreein’ wrt ethanol. Bio-diesel can be a different animal. While canola is the food crop used to make bio-diesel, it can also be made from used French fry grease, plant waste and even animal rendering waste. Ethanol is not eco-friendly. It has gained ground only because of a strong grain farmer lobby and disinformation promoted by advocates and government dupes.

    Here in my area, we’ve got acres and acres of good land that was bein’ used t’ grow tobacco. That’s on the way out. They need new crops to replace tobacco. Tobacco ain’t food.

    Conversion to ethanol — even if it happens — doesn’t happen overnight. I think Monbiot’s lookin’ at what would happen if everything changed immediately. It won’t. We ain’t quite hit peak oil yet and even when we do, there will still be oil bein’ used.

    I don’t think convertin’ to ethanol does any good. Convertin’ to bio-diesel don’t have the bigass lobbyists on board but it’s a smarter way t’ go.

    JimBobby

  • Also, JimBob Monsanto is also pushing this, as a way to push their genetically modified seeds. The idea here is that cars don’t care. Quite right, but that pollute and blow all around in food crops that aren’t genetically modified.

  • Make no mistake, governments will try everything under the sun to avoid making cuts to energy consumption. Saying the transition to biofuels will be very slow and we can adapt and mitigate in the meantime is extremely dangerous.
    Governments have acknowledged that we have a crisis of climate. Society has a fundamental value, and that value is economic growth. That 20th century, capitalist value will not be compromised lightly, in spite of the dire prognostications concerning the planetary atmosphere.
    The only way we will survive is to radically cut back, but saying that is akin to saying god does not exist to someone like Osama Bin Laden.

  • All forms of competition, including economic, increase costs and work on the laws of speed: the higher the speed, the larger energy inputs are needed to achieve small increases, which also mean production outputs, all causing reactions in the forms of depletion, waste, pollution.

    Wealth is the temporary control of energy.

    Wealth can not be created, only taken from other sectors, the environment, and the future.

    Monetary costs are not realities, but often violence induced, temporary perceptions, therefore their use in real economic terms is meaningless.

    The lowest REAL cost of any product will always be the lowest resource energy inputs.

    Human labour doesn’t cost anything to an economy, because it already exists, has the right to exist and survive, therefore it is energy neutral and might as well be used. The unnecessary elimination of it, for so called “cost cutting” and “profitability” reasons always increases costs on account of the increased energy inputs and the need to provide the survival needs of the displaced humans also increase resource/energy waste.

    The biggest cause of our present environmental crisis is the top down collectivization of economies, production systems, the destruction of local economies,like the family farm sytem, (Small is Beautiful), the licencing of increased resource/energy expoitation by the creation of imaginary capital by the deregulated banks, demanding convertibility, and the fraudulent definitions of “monetary efficiency” by the fraudulent neoclassical theory, using fraudulent accounting for their fraudulent GDP, Growth and Productivity figures.

    The biggest problems are caused by forced urbanization, globalization and commuting, all designed to separate the producers from the users (there are no “consumers” as we can not “consume” anything), so that people are forced to drive, buy everything, increasing the GDP.

    The neoclassical demand for “specialization” is for the purpose of creating incompetence and total reliance on systems and markets controlled by power elites. As we have now.

    Specialization is necessary, but only in limited degrees and percentages.

    The solution is locally based, overlapping economies, based on the largest degree of self sufficiency from the individual to the national levels, cutting out commuting and unncessary transport, thereby reducing energy waste, pollution, garbage etc.

    The cry that this would “increase costs” is nonsense, because the lesser resource/energy inputs always reduce reactions, therefore long term costs and our present monetary figures don’t mean anything.

    Then, we also have the manmade cancer and diabetics epidemics, all transferred costs of “cost cuttings”, like chemicalized monocropping by agribiz, the animal feedlots poisoning the environment and wasting energy, etc. etc.

    Even in monetary terms, our costs of living have increased 10 fold since the forced introduction of the neoclassical theory in the ’70s, but our sickness, pollution etc. real, transferred physical costs went ballistic.

    But they jack up the GDP, so everything is OK?

  • Greetings all,

    First up, congrats on the new site and great info! I’ve got RPE bookmarked and will try to check in as often as my schedule allows.

    Did want to share the following analysis on Monbiot’s ethanol article, using a Manitoba perspective. We are pursuing bio-fuels here, both ethanol and bio-diesel, but the impacts are not at all similar to what he describes. Specifically:

    1. Ethanol production in Manitoba will not require any rainforests to be destroyed, mostly because we don’t have any rainforests.
    2. Manitoba ethanol comes from low-grade wheat that isn’t normally used for human food. Plus, after the starch in the wheat is used to make ethanol, the protein is still available in dried distillers grain which is used as livestock feed. Expanded ethanol production in Manitoba will actually enable us to replace current imports of USA feed with made-in-Manitoba dried distillers grain.
    3. No argument here that conservation needs to be a key priority, but saying bio-fuels are worse than fossil fuels is highly questionable, to say the least. Over-statements like this undermine the good content he does have in his article.
    4. There’s enough food in the world to wipe out hunger, and that’s been true for a long time. 850 million people in our world lack proper nutrition not because of ethanol, but because of much broader social/economic/political factors at play in our country and in theirs.
    5. Monbiot’s language lumping all governments under one banner is a stark reflection of one of the corporate right’s biggest victories, namely the all-governments-are-the-same-and-they-are-all-evil myth. Progressive folks deserve a more sophisticated analysis if we are ever going to bridge the enormous and deliberate chasm between citizens and the decisions that affect their lives.

    Rob Altemeyer
    NDP MLA – Wolseley
    Winnipeg, MB

  • First, let me say that it’s great to see elected members on a discussion forum like this. Hopefully we will see more in the future.

    Let me respond to some of your points.

    1. It will require prairie to be destroyed. While not as photogenic as the rain forest, it is still a valuable ecosystem that is a lot closer to extinction then rain forest.

    3. I think once running at the same scale as the fossil fuel industry bio-fuels very well could be worse. Vast amounts of the planet and thousands of species have been driven into extinction due to land converted farms to grow our food. How much more land will be needed to replace the oil? Twice as much?

    4. Will there be enough food once bio-fuels running at full capacity.

    5. Your left-wing government is promoting bio-fuels. Bush’s right-wing government is promoting bio-fuels. That’s a pretty broad range of governments. Perhaps there are some government who aren’t promoting bio-fuels. Perhaps he should have stopped to congratulate them. Debates like this, I think you agree, are an important part of a “sophisticated analysis”.

    Instead of promoting bio-fuels whose benefits are debatable, at best, perhaps the Manitoba NDP should be spending it’s money on things whose benefits are clear, like clean electric New Flyer trolley buses powered by clean electric Manitoba power transporting people in transit and pedestrian friendly neighborhoods. That is all he is really asking for.

    Darwin O’Connor
    Toronto, formally of Pinawa

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