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Biofuel: Green savior or red herring?

By Paul Sussman for CNN
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(CNN) -- It has been touted as the magic bullet that will help slow and possibly reverse global warming; the renewable energy source that allows us all to carry on driving our cars while at the same time protecting the environment.

George Bush and Tony Blair have sung its praises; car manufacturers are falling over themselves to adapt their vehicles to its use; more and more land, especially in the developing world, is being given over to its production. An entire industry has grown up around it, one that is fast becoming as vocally and economically powerful as the oil industry it is seeking to supersede.

Despite the widespread fanfare of optimism, however, a growing body of scientists, economists, environmental campaigners and development experts are expressing doubts, in many cases grave ones, about the biofuel boom, arguing that far from saving the natural environment, the headlong rush into biofuel production is actually creating far more problems than it is solving.

"The governments using biofuel to tackle global warming know that it causes more harm than good," George Monbiot, one of the UK's most outspoken environmental commentators, warned in a recent article in The Guardian newspaper.

"Biofuel is worse for the planet than petroleum."

From oil to sugar cane

Biofuel -- bio-ethanol, bio-diesel and bio-gas -- is derived from "biomass," or recently living plant matter, in particular wheat, corn, soybeans, flax, rapeseed, sugar cane and palm oil.

As such it is not merely a renewable energy source but, its advocates argue, a considerably cleaner and less environmentally degrading one than fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas.

This is because the carbon it contains was only recently extracted from the atmosphere by the growing plants. The burning of biofuels thus results in substantially less of a net gain in atmospheric carbon dioxide than that of fossil fuels.

The potential of such biofuel has long been recognized. In the mid-19th century Nicolaus Otto, the German inventor of the internal combustion engine, envisaged his creation running on ethanol, as did Henry Ford at the beginning of the 20th century with his revolutionary Model T.

Rudolph Diesel, inventor of the engine that still bears his name, likewise made a great deal of the fact that, as well as petroleum, his brainchild could also run perfectly happily on peanut oil.

Many countries, notably Brazil, have for decades been using such fuels to power their vehicles (often blended with traditional petroleum).

It is only recently, however, that the governments of major industrialized nations such as the U.S., the UK and Germany have really started putting their weight behind biofuel development and production, spurred on both by rocketing oil prices, dwindling oil reserves and growing concerns about the impact of fossil fuels on climate change and global warming.

Thus in a recent directive the European Union called for biofuels to meet 5.75 percent of European transport needs by 2010, while in the UK the government is hoping that by 2050 33 percent of total national fuel use will be met by biofuels.

George Bush, meanwhile has committed the U.S. to replacing a significant proportion of its petroleum consumption with ethanol in the next decade.

On his recent visit to Brazil -- a visit in which the development of bio-fuels was high on the agenda -- Bush declared: "I'm very optimistic that America can benefit from alternative energy sources.

"So optimistic that I laid out an ambitious goal for our country, and that is to reduce gasoline consumption by 20 percent over 10 years.

"In other words, we have a mandated fuel standard of 35 billion gallons of alternative fuels to be used by 2017."

A major step, but in which direction?

All of which sounds like a major step in the right direction. Except that biofuels such as ethanol cannot be looked at in isolation.

While there is broad consensus that such fuels are in themselves less carbon-emitting and therefore less atmospherically damaging than fossil fuels, their growth, production, distillation and transport to point of retail do all have a substantial environmental impact.

An impact that, critics argue, offsets, and in many instances actually outweighs, the environmental benefits.

Much of the concern has focused on the need for land to grow bio-fuel crops. Such is the increasing demand for these crops that more and more arable soil that would normally be used to produce food staples -- particularly for the world's poorest people -- is now being turned over to bio-fuel cultivation.

To put that in a human context, the Swiss-based World Conservation Union (WCU) has calculated that the grain required to produce sufficient ethanol to fill the tank of a car such as a Range Rover would be sufficient to feed one person for an entire year.

On the basis that the tank is refilled every two weeks, the grain needed would be enough to feed an entire village for the same period.

"Biofuels set up a competition for food between cars and people," says Monbiot. "The people would necessarily lose: those who can afford to drive are richer than those who are in danger of starvation."

U.S. economist Lester R. Brown of the Washington-based Earth Policy Institute agrees.

"The food and energy economies, historically separate, are now merging," he explains. "In this new economy, if the fuel value of grain exceeds its food value, the market will move it into the energy economy.

"The stage is now set for direct competition for grain between the 800 million people who own automobiles, and the world's two billion poorest people.

"The risk is that millions of those on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder will start falling off as higher food prices drop their consumption below the survival level."

"Deforestation diesel"

Nor is it just upon arable land that the bio-fuel industry is impacting. Ever-increasing swathes of virgin forest are being felled to provide cultivation space for biofuel crops.

Thus a recent U.N. report predicts that 98 percent of Indonesia's natural rainforest will be degraded or lost within the next 15 years, in large part because of the planting of palm trees for the production of the biofuel palm oil. The same trees, for the same purpose, are devouring 0.7 percent of Malaysia's total rainforest annually.

In Brazil, meanwhile, huge swathes of Amazon rainforest are being lost to sugarcane plantations, again for the provision of raw materials to the biofuel industry.

"Some of the cane plantations are the size of European states," says Fabio Feldman, a leading Brazilian environmentalist. "These vast monocultures have replaced important eco-systems."

As well as destroying such native ecosystems, deforestation also diminishes so-called "carbon sinks" -- thereby reducing the Earth's capacity to absorb and re-process atmospheric carbon dioxide -- while also adding to air pollution through the burning of land to clear it for cultivation (sugarcane fields are traditionally fired prior to harvest to remove leaves and drive away snakes).

A recent study by Wetlands International in conjunction with Dutch environmental consultancy Delft Hydraulics demonstrated that in Indonesia forest-burning for palm oil cultivation releases 33 tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide for every ton of palm oil produced -- ten times the amount released by a petrol-burning engine.

"Little wonder," wrote Jeffrey McNeeley, chief scientist of the WCU, in a recent article, "That many are calling biofuels 'deforestation diesel.'"

Finally, once the biofuel crops have been planted, grown and harvested -- often with the direct involvement of fossil fuels in the form of fertilizers, pesticides and petrol to power farm equipment -- they then have to go through a distillation and fermentation process to actually turn them into fuel.

This also produces significant amounts of atmospheric pollution, as does the supply system used to deliver the finished biofuel to its retail outlet (a system that usually involves fossil-fuel powered tankers).

"If you add in all the various factors involved in actually growing and manufacturing biofuels," says Deepak Rughani of BiofuelWatch, an organization that highlights the environmental drawbacks of the global biofuel industry, "then the latest scientific research shows that biofuel use results in between two and eight times the carbon emissions you get from burning fossil fuels."

It is statistics such as these that are leading to louder and louder calls for a radical rethink of the underlying philosophy of biofuel use, and for a slowing or outright moratorium on biofuel production -- at least until ways can be found of ensuring that that production does not end up increasing the environmental damage it is seeking to obviate.

No-one is denying that, if managed properly, biofuels such as ethanol can offer very subsatial benefits, and have a significant role to play in the battle against global warming and climate change.

At present, however, that role would not appear to be quite as green a one as has been suggested.

As John Hontelez, secretary-general of the European Environmental Bureau, puts it: "Biofuels are only part of the solution. Unless we produce biofuels sustainably, we'll end up with more energy-intensive and environmentally damaging farming practices and hasten the degradation of our ecosystems."


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