Biofuels: Just say no

Sorry, hippies - biofuels are bad for the environment. George Monbiot:

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.

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... 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.

Monbiot's excellent point that ethanol is currently made from wheat and maize - i.e., food - does not seem to trouble many "eco-friendly" types. It is rather disturbing that burning food to power the personal vehicles of wealthy Westerners, while at the same time many poorer, browner people around the world starve, is somehow seen as a "progressive" or "enlightened" thing to do.

The problem of alternative fuels - or, more accurately, our future energy sources - is a very real one. But biofuels are not the answer. At the risk of sounding like I have my head too far into the clouds, or up my ass, as the case may be, I would point out that we already have a clean and plentiful source of energy, one that will last for the next 2 billion or so years: the sun. All of this money that is going in to support research down the dead-end of biofuels would be much better spent finding ways to harness all this energy that is being beamed directly to us 24 hours a day. This entails a) improving collection methods and b) improving storage capacity. These are substantial problems, to be sure, but certainly not insurmountable ones - provided that we allocate resources to overcoming them.

Instead, we get billions spent on invading and destroying countries in the Middle East and on the "fraud" (to use Monbiot's terminology) of biofuels (which are strongly backed by big oil - something that should immediately raise suspicion).

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