Environment: The biofuels diversion

Biofuels appear not to be green sources of energy, but generate social problems

THE DROUGHT in the USA reported in the last issue of Socialism Today has continued to intensify, putting crop production under even more pressure. This has sparked a debate over whether biofuel production should be cut back to release more food onto the market. Biofuels are used to replace oil-based petrol products to power motor vehicles. They are produced from raw materials such as corn or palm oil which can be processed into ethanol which is a petrol substitute.

They have become popular in the US and other industrialised capitalist countries because they help achieve energy independence, since they can be produced from domestically sourced raw materials. Biofuels have also been promoted by politicians and car firms under pressure from environmental campaigners because they are supposedly a green energy source.

Biofuels are now big business and receive huge government subsidies. The US Department of Agriculture estimates that ethanol uses up to 40% of the corn crop and, in Europe, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation reckons that the biodiesel industry accounts for 60% of rapeseed production. In the Philippines, a big manufacturer of biofuels from palm oil, car owners are forced to use a certain amount of biofuels when they fill up the tank. In the EU, there is a target for it to make up 10% of transport fuel use by 2020. In the USA, the Renewable Fuel Standard law forces petrol manufacturers to blend 13 billion gallons of corn ethanol with petrol in 2012.

The pressure on global food prices due to the US drought is prompting many bodies, such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, to push for a reappraisal of the government backed drive to biofuels. This is not for humanitarian reasons, but because they object to subsidies distorting the free market.

Pundits predict, however, that their exhortations are unlikely to be listened to in the USA, since the controversy has been caught up in the presidential election campaign. Iowa is one of the biggest agricultural producing areas in the country and is also a key electoral swing state. If subsides are removed, the price of corn will drop like a stone and hit the incomes of farmers, making them less inclined to back the Democrats in November. Both president Barack Obama, who has visited Iowa five times already and is pouring in advertising money, and Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger, are strongly backing keeping the subsidies.

The environmental issues have been largely ignored in the controversy over biofuels, but for green campaigners and socialists this is a crucial question. Evidence is growing that the biofuels are not green sources of energy, but actually produce more greenhouse gases than they absorb, as well as generating big social problems where they are grown. Theoretically, biofuels could be a useful green energy source because they are renewable and absorb the greenhouse gases that cause global warming.

In practice, the conditions under which they are produced do not lead to a net reduction of greenhouse gases. It is important when assessing the environmental impact of any energy source to accurately calculate the net effects of its use. For instance, with biofuels, the corn that may be used to produce it could be transported on lorries that use petrol, and so on down a long chain. An analysis showed that ignoring these secondary effects overlooked on average 60% of the total energy used.

The process of converting the corn into ethanol also requires large amounts of energy, the vast majority of which comes from non-renewable sources. Researchers at Cornell University and the University of California at Berkeley found that it takes 29% more to make one gallon of ethanol than a gallon of fossil fuel. This is because it takes large amounts of fossil-fuel energy to grow corn that requires fertilizer and irrigation, to transport the crops, and then to turn the corn into ethanol.

A study in the prestigious Science magazine in 2008 found that, on a worldwide basis, using corn-based ethanol as an energy source would nearly double greenhouse gas emissions over 30 years, and elevated greenhouse gas emissions would persist for 167 years. The researchers pointed out those previous analyses favourable to biofuels failed to count the carbon emissions that occur as farmers worldwide respond to higher prices and convert forest and grassland to new cropland to replace the grain (or cropland) diverted to biofuels. The result was that an expanded area was put under cultivation for crops, replacing forest and grassland. This is significant because forests have a much greater capacity than agricultural plantations to absorb the carbon dioxide that causes global warming. (See: http://bit.ly/hwVsYT)

The US Department of Energy (DOE) responded by saying that biofuels would result in 19% fewer greenhouse gas emissions when compared to petroleum which, even if true, would still be just scratching the surface of the problem. The relatively favourable outcome claimed by the DOE was based on producing ethanol in US conditions, where rainforests were not being destroyed to grow corn or palm oil, common feedstocks for biofuels. Even in US conditions, however, the Science magazine article found that emissions increased by 50%. In fact, the assumption in the model that, on a world scale, rainforests will rapidly be replaced by agricultural plantations is completely borne out by present experience.

One of the reasons for the failure of the Kyoto treaty to cut greenhouse gas emissions was the ‘offsetting’ scam built into it. That encouraged the destruction of rainforests and their replacement by plantations to grow, amongst other commodities, biofuel feedstocks such as palm oil. Under the offsetting scheme, rich nations could evade their targets for cutting emissions by buying rainforests and then promising not to clear them for development. Even if they complied with this, the loophole was that agricultural plantations were classified as rainforest. The result was that the process of clearance accelerated as the rainforest was replanted with crops, a highly profitable process driven by the subsidies available for biofuels.

As mentioned above, the environmental snag is that plantations absorb only 20% as much carbon dioxide as rainforests. (Rainforests are crucial in fighting climate change because 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions are a result of deforestation, since trees absorb large quantities of carbon dioxide.) In Indonesia, which has aggressively followed a biofuel policy, 72% of the rainforest has been destroyed and been replaced partly by palm oil plantations for fuel. The replacement of the rainforest is also having terrible effects on the indigenous populations of the areas involved, with land grabs and violent evictions occurring as the forests continue to be cleared.

There is no environmental justification in continuing with biofuel production. It is unlikely that, even under ideal conditions, their use would produce a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. In the meantime, the large areas of land under cultivation for biofuel feedstocks are a factor in driving up world food prices. Genuine renewable energy sources such as wind, wave and solar power are available now and should be the basis for a green energy programme, but their adoption is held back by the profit-hungry capitalist system.

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September 2012