Sunday, February 10, 2008

Biofuels a greenhouse threat?

I’ve read a few reports about problems with biofuels over the last month in the British press, now the New York Times is getting onboard with this report that biofuels could actually be harming the environment.

The logic is pretty simple. As we’re told its now possible to grow your fuel (I’ve heard this line in a couple of TV commercials), the problem is to get the land to grow crops for fuel, rainforests and grasslands are being ploughed under. Cropland absorbs less greenhouse gas than forested land does, so already we’re behind. More fossil fuel then has to be used to convert crops into energy and more still to transport the biofuel. In other words a lot of greenhouse gases are made to produce something that’s suppose to be reducing them.

You may have also noticed food prices going up – another unintended consequence of the biofuel movement. In the US corn prices have gone up sharply, despite there being bumper harvests of corn in the Midwest. The reason? Much of the corn crop is now being used to make ethanol, leaving less for food.

This isn’t to condemn the concept of biofuels. The idea of using a renewable resource for energy is a pretty good one. But clearing naturally carbon-absorbing forests to plant crops for fuel isn’t. Nor is using food crops for fuel. Its better to promote bio-diesel – diesel fuel refined from used cooking oil, where you are turning what’s now a waste product into something useful. Or research into cellulose-based ethanol, where what’s now considered plant waste (like leaves or wood chips) is processed into fuel. Cellulose-based ethanol needs more research to become commercially viable, but it’s money better spent than refining edible corn so you can put it into your gas tank.
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