DAVID COMMON: DIARY
Putting the brakes on ethanol
January 25, 2008
Ethanol was supposed to be this great fix for the air we breathe. Now it turns out it might be counterproductive, even dirty. At least, that is the view gaining ground in Europe.
In principle, biofuels like ethanol were supposed to partially replace conventional fuels, thereby reducing already heavy demand on fossil fuels and offering a non-polluting alternative. As a bonus, the biofuels are made from plants and so demand for the crops of increasingly desperate farmers would increase.
That was the utopia. But long before ethanol could become a regular staple at gas stations, critics were pointing out the potential downsides. Those fears appear to be coming true.
First is food. With more corn, wheat and other crops being diverted to make fuel, there is less available for human or animal consumption. Farmers are also shifting what they grow, to crops more conducive for eventually powering cars.
This helps explain why global food prices are on the rise. The cost of raw cereals doubled in Britain in 2007. Italians held a strike last September to protest the rising cost of pasta. At my local boulangerie, the baker has had to raise the price of a baguette. (Quelle horreur!)
Then there's the problem of where the crops are being grown. In Indonesia, for instance, huge tracts of forest have been bulldozed to create palm farms. The palm oil is used to create a biofuel, thus offsetting the carbon dioxide that would have been released had conventional fuel been burned.
But what of the trees? Had they remained standing, they would have absorbed large amounts of carbon dioxide in the air. The scientists say the benefit of creating the biofuel from sources like this is negated by the loss of a long-term carbon converter, like a tree.
The European Union is the first to do something about all this. It is proposing to ban imports of certain fuel crops whose production might do more harm than good in fighting climate change.
The draft legislation, suggests crops grown on former forests, wetlands and grasslands (all carbon sinks) be banned for use in the 27-member bloc. There is no guarantee this proposal will become policy but it is a sign of the shifting attitudes toward biofuels.
For example, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama recently warned the biofuel production could actually result in environmental pollution and damage to human health.
Other studies have suggested biofuels made from certain crops actually use more energy (between planting, harvesting, production and transport) than they create. For example, a Swiss study showed fuels made from U.S. corn, Malaysian palm oil and Brazilian soy may actually be worse than fossil fuels in the long run.
The best approach, according to the Swiss, would be fuels made from so-called residual products, like recycled cooking oil and ethanol from grass or wood. Yet another study suggested Brazilian sugar cane was best because of its extremely high energy value.
Pick your crops
In Europe, most of the biofuels come from rapeseed oil, which Canadians call canola oil. (Drive across much of Manitoba and Saskatchewan in spring, it's in those bright yellow fields.)
The EU had planned to ensure 5.75 per cent of all the fuel used in Europe by 2010 was a biofuel. It's not going to happen. There isn't enough production capacity.
The industry is ramping up but still not globally mature. Following present trends, biofuels will likely account for 4.2 per cent of Europe's fuel by 2010.
Biofuels seemed like a good idea and, generally, one worth pursuing. But clearly not every crop will work, and not everywhere.
The world — the United States especially — has jumped into the car powered by ethanol, and Europe just tapped the brakes. Everyone else in the car should pay attention.