The fallacy of biofuels.

Author:Ruiz-Marrero, Carmelo
Position:Surviving Climate Change - Viewpoint essay

The biofuels fantasy dies hard! Even today, a significant portion of the American environmental movement clings hard to the notion that fuels derived from farm crops, animal waste and the like can wean the world off fossil fuels and thus defeat the twin threats of peak oil and global warming.

When I bring up the evidence that there are no sustainable biofuels, some of my American colleagues backtrack only slightly and switch to argument B: that while not perfect, biofuels can be a part of the solution. When I point out that such a statement is based on faith and not on reason, they take it personally and accuse me of being "uncivil."

So let's go over the basics again. According to a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study, if all of the corn grown in the USA was used for ethanol and all of the soy in the country was turned into bio-diesel, it would only displace 12% of national gasoline demand and no more than 6% of diesel fuel demand. But actual experience has shown that even the NAS's grim conclusions might be too generous to the industry. In 2006 20% of American corn was turned into 5 billion gallons of ethanol, replacing a measly 1% of US gasoline consumption. You do the math. It's not rocket surgery.

If you still believe that biofuels could have a part in a carbon-free future, then take a look at these numbers from Cornell University entomologist David Pimentel: "All green plants in the United States--including all crops, forests and grasslands, combine--collect about 32 quads (32 x [10.sup.15] BTU) of sunlight energy per year. The American population today burns more than three times that amount of energy annually as fossil fuels."

Whether or not biofuels compete with food is no longer a serious subject of discussion. In July 2008 the UK Guardian revealed a World Bank confidential study that concluded that the push for biofuels is responsible for 75% of the sharp rise in food prices worldwide. If it takes 22 pounds of corn to make one gallon of ethanol (according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), how could anyone possibly doubt that there is a food vs. fuel dilemma? Even without these data, it does not take a PhD to figure out that an acre of cropland devoted to biofuels is an acre of cropland that is not producing food.

Biofuel advocates tend not to question energy demand, and accept it as a given. According to the US government's own 2006 International Energy Outlook, world energy consumption will rise 71% between 2003 and 2030. World oil demand rose 3.4% in a 12-month period between 2003 and 2004. According to the Earth Policy Institute, global greenhouse emissions went up 20% between 2000 and 2006, and a lot of that had to do with rising energy demand. As of 2008, over 3.5 million barrels of oil are burned per hour. And of course, the "Chindia" factor: China doubled its petroleum consumption from 1996 to 2006, and India is expected to triple its oil imports between 2005 and 2020.

The numbers clearly show that in order to make a dent in the world's rising energy demand, the great majority of biofuel production has to be moved south, far south, toward and across the equator, to the so-called Third World. Only in the Deep South of the world, in sub-Saharan Africa, South America and Southeast Asia, is there enough year-round sunlight and land area, and on top of that, land over there is cheap and human life is even cheaper.

And things are already moving that way. The government of...

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