Carbon Costs

16 Jun 2008

Does anyone still believe that turning food into fuel is a good idea? Only the people in charge of this crazy policy, who are now forcing every driver in Europe to collaborate in it.

In theory, fuels made from plants can reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by cars and trucks. Plants absorb carbon as they grow, it is released again when the fuel is burnt. A directive published by the European Commission now forces all fuel suppliers to add biofuels to the petrol or diesel they sell, in the name of reducing our carbon emissions.

Even before the directive came into force, plenty of studies had shown that it was nonsense. A report by the United Nations, published last year, suggests that 98% of the natural rainforest in Indonesia will be degraded or gone by 2022. Just five years before, the same agencies predicted that this wouldn’t happen until 2032.

They reckoned without the planting of palms for oil to turn into biodiesel for the European market. As the forests are cleared and burnt, both the trees and the peat they sit on are turned into carbon dioxide. A report by the Dutch consultancy Delft Hydraulics shows that every tonne of palm oil results in up to 33 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, or ten times as much as petroleum produces. There are similar impacts all over the world, as farmers growing “green fuels” move into virgin habitats.

Two recent papers published in Science magazine calculate the carbon costs of biofuel production. When land clearance is taken into account, all the major biofuels cause a massive increase in emissions. Even the most productive source – sugarcane grown in the scrubby savannahs of central Brazil – creates a carbon debt which takes 17 years to repay.

As the major carbon reductions must be made now, the net effect of this crop is to exacerbate climate change. The worst source – palm oil displacing tropical rainforest growing in peat – invokes a carbon debt of some 840 years. Even when you produce ethanol from maize grown on “rested” arable land (which in the EU is called ‘set-aside’ and in the US is called ‘conservation reserve’), it takes 48 years to repay the carbon debt.

To be fair to the European Commission, the directive rules that biofuels should not be produced by destroying primary forests, ancient grasslands or wetlands. Nor should any biodiverse ecosystem be damaged in order to grow them. Unfortunately, this does nothing to solve the problem.

If biofuels can’t be produced in virgin habitats, they must be confined to existing agricultural land, which means that every time we fill up the car, we snatch food from people’s mouths. In any competition between car drivers and the hungry, the drivers will win, because starving people are poorer than those who can afford to run cars.

As the price of food rises, it encourages farmers to destroy pristine habitats – primary forests, ancient grasslands, wetlands and the rest – in order to grow it. We can congratulate ourselves on remaining morally pure, but the impacts are the same. There is no way out of this: on a finite planet with tight food supplies you either compete with the hungry or clear new land.

Even if there were no knock-on effects, biofuels would still be an environmental disaster. A study by the Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen shows that emissions of nitrous oxide alone, from the nitrogen fertilisers used to grow these crops, ensure that ethanol made from maize causes between 0.9 and 1.5 times as much warming as petrol, while rapeseed oil (the source of over 80% of the world’s biodiesel) generates 1-1.7 times the impact of mineral diesel.

There is no easy way out of this. Many people have argued that algae grown in saltwater can produce vast yields of oil, but no such scheme has yet succeeded. Other people have hailed a tropical shrub called jatropha as a miracle crop (beware of all miracle crops!), because it could, in theory, be grown by smallholders on wasteland. In practice, the Indian government is planning 14m hectares of jatropha plantations and driving smallholders off the land to make way for them. The Burmese junta intends to plant 3m acres of jatropha by next year, and it won’t be for the benefit of the country’s peasants.

Even the idea of using agricultural waste soon runs into trouble. Most “waste” is nothing of the kind. It is the organic material which maintains the soil’s structure, nutrients and store of carbon. Removing it greatly increases the rate of soil erosion and means that farmers must use more nitrogen fertilisers. Biofuels are the fastest food of all, speeding us down the highway to ecological destruction.

So why do our governments persist with this policy? Because spreading starvation and wrecking the planet are less politically costly than the alternatives: ensuring that manufacturers produce more efficient cars and encouraging people to switch to less polluting forms of transport. A crime against humanity in a different place and time costs governments less than a minor inconvenience here and now. We must change this formula by protesting against our forced participation in the war against the planet.

George Monbiot, a writer and journalist, is the author of best selling books on politics, the environment and travel and writes a weekly column in The Guardian.

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