Monday, November 22, 2004

Biodiesel: Boon or Boondoggle

George Monbiot has a piece in the Guardian on the potential negative impacts of growing enough biodiesel to replace petroleum use.

He suggests that the cultivation of land for crops to produce biodiesel will lead to massive starvation around the globe and increase deforestation.

Selected quote:

Road transport in the UK consumes 37.6m tonnes of petroleum products a year. The most productive oil crop that can be grown in this country is rape. The average yield is 3-3.5 tonnes per hectare. One tonne of rapeseed produces 415kg of biodiesel. So every hectare of arable land could provide 1.45 tonnes of transport fuel.

To run our cars and buses and lorries on biodiesel, in other words, would require 25.9m hectares. There are 5.7m in the UK. Even the EU's more modest target of 20% by 2020 would consume almost all our cropland.

If the same thing is to happen all over Europe, the impact on global food supply will be catastrophic: big enough to tip the global balance from net surplus to net deficit. If, as some environmentalists demand, it is to happen worldwide, then most of the arable surface of the planet will be deployed to produce food for cars, not people.

This prospect sounds, at first, ridiculous. Surely if there were unmet demand for food, the market would ensure that crops were used to feed people rather than vehicles? There is no basis for this assumption. The market responds to money, not need. People who own cars have more money than people at risk of starvation. In a contest between their demand for fuel and poor people's demand for food, the car-owners win every time. Something very much like this is happening already. Though 800 million people are permanently malnourished, the global increase in crop production is being used to feed animals: the number of livestock on earth has quintupled since 1950. The reason is that those who buy meat and dairy products have more purchasing power than those who buy only subsistence crops.

Green fuel is not just a humanitarian disaster; it is also an environmental disaster. Those who worry about the scale and intensity of today's agriculture should consider what farming will look like when it is run by the oil industry. Moreover, if we try to develop a market for rapeseed biodiesel in Europe, it will immediately develop into a market for palm oil and soya oil. Oilpalm can produce four times as much biodiesel per hectare as rape, and it is grown in places where labour is cheap. Planting it is already one of the world's major causes of tropical forest destruction. Soya has a lower oil yield than rape, but the oil is a by-product of the manufacture of animal feed. A new market for it will stimulate an industry that has already destroyed most of Brazil's cerrado (one of the world's most biodiverse environments) and much of its rainforest.

Oil is finite, and we will soon pass the peak of oil production (if we haven't already). Monbiot discusses voluntary simplicity in another article, but I cannot see even a tiny fraction of Americans choosing a less consumerist lifestyle.

Personally, I think the end of the oil age with rapid climate change brought on by global warming and overpopulation which will ultimately doom human civilization.

Modernists assume that we can use new technology solve the problems created by older technologies. Postmodernists think this faith in technology is irrational. There is no reason to believe that we can fix problems faster than we create them. Indeed, I think there is mounting evidence of just the opposite....

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