Thursday, April 10, 2008

Biofuel dilemmas

People are realizing biofuels are no magic wand to our global carbon issues. What is quite obvious to anyone with a bit of training in systems ecology was confirmed this February by a study published in Science. I may or may not do a ResearchBlogging entry on it some time, but for now I do with these popularized versions:

In short, sure biofuels draw energy from carbon produced in this cycle as opposed to a fossilized one, hence doesn't contribute directly to the greenhouse effect. But if used as an excuse to keep consuming and clearing forest it's a disaster - corn fields hold just a fraction of the carbon (and numerous other ecosystem services) a forest does, and if it competes with food production in a starving world, well... it's no rocket science.

March saw a number of warnings from people and organizations perhaps having read the above mentioned Science paper: Nestle in minding their (food not fuel) business (Biofuel boom threatens food supplies: Nestle), Professor Bob Watson a.o. (Top scientists warn against rush to biofuel, Biofuels threaten 'billions of lives'), Indian Finance Minister P. Chidambaram (Indian minister attacks biofuels), US Army veteran and rancher John Carter (The Clean Energy Scam) and many others. The last article is a quite lengthy TIME piece I can only recommend; it portrays the grotesque contrast between Brazil's long standing and relatively sensible and successful biofuel practice and how the US rapidly messes things up globally by their (not so capitalist) biofuel subsidies. I now know 20% of carbon emissions are due to deforestation and that the benefit of biofuel will only level the deforestation emissions in on average 400 years.

"There are real problems with the unsustainability of biofuels, [...cutting down rainforest to grow the crops is...] profoundly stupid". - John Beddington, UK government chief scientific adviser.

MSN Finance did an article on the market situation (Could we really run out of food?) - advising their readers to invest in agriculture and noting poor rice producing countries have begun imposing limitations to exports. None other than the world bank is in the choir (World Bank Expects More High Food Prices) warning us this is a situation we'll have to deal with in many years ahead and informs they almost doubled their agricultural loans.

"[...] you can now add "peak wheat" to your political and investment lexicon. And it's a lot worse [than peak oil.]" - Jon Markman, MSN Finance.

The number of ways that this situation can lead to conflicts are more than I can count. But don't give up your hybrid yet. Although biofuels are clearly part of the problem, they could be part of the solution as well. I'm thinking the science fiction like news of engineered bacteria and algae producing biofuel or making the existing processes more efficient (Breeding the Oil Bug and many others).

The article that kicked me off putting together this post was The Biggest Green Mistake. It's using hypertext the way hypertext was meant to be used (contrary to most media) meaning it links to tons of sources in the text. It's arguing we need more genetic engineering and radical technical solutions - I'm confident I don't fully agree but they are definitely onto something.

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