Biofuels: bad science, bad maths, bad policy, bad ethics

The dilemma
The dilemma is that we have developed a global infrastructure based on oil, which has allowed us to live in the most luxurious civilisation ever known. In our modern world 95 percent of transportation, 95 percent of goods in our shops, and 95 percent of our food products depend on oil. Oil allows us to maintain an available food supply of barely more than two days by just-in-time deliveries from all over the world. To farm a single cow and deliver it to market requires six barrels of oil.

Our oil consumption has been rising steadily for decades. The International Energy Agency forecasts that our oil use will rise from its present 84 million barrels a day to 116 million barrels by 2030. But, Geologists (mainly working in the heart of the oil industry) tell us our oil is running out. They foresee oil supplies diminishing at 3 percent every year, with a cumulative impact adding up to a 50 percent reduction by 2030 (the same year as our consumption is forecast to have risen by 38 percent).

The biotech solution

The biotech industry solution is, of course, GM. Realising that there could be a multi-billion dollar-a-year biofuel industry out there in the fields which could be hyped to provide up to 25 percent of the world's energy within 20 years, the GM crops which were going to feed hungry people became destined to feed hungry vehicles. And of course, fuel from crops which are genetically modified, can effectively be patented.

Apparently overnight, Biofuels became a 'GM success story' of sustainable, economical, clean, safe, environmentally friendly alternative to oil, providing the solution to our energy problems and global warming.

The EU and US response was to introduce incentives for agri-fuels, including mandatory targets, publicly funded subsidies, and tax breaks. Billions of dollars are being invested in agri-fuel plantations, refineries and the extensive associated infrastructure. The implementation has forged ahead at breakneck speed, without any proof that biofuels will actually supply our energy needs, nor that they can ever mitigate global warming, nor with any due consideration of the potential damage to the environment and the people.

The meaning of the term 'biofuel'. 'Biofuels' refer to several technologies which produce alternative fuels from a variety of sources.
First generation biofuels are available now:
  • BIOETHANOL is an alcohol-based fuel produced from fermented sugar or starch. Sugar-cane and maize are the most prominent crops used, but sugar beet, wheat and barley are current options. Bioethanol can be blended with petrol.
  • BIODIESEL is manufactured from vegetable, animal, or waste oil. The most prominent source is palm oil. Biodiesel is usually blended with conventional diesel.
  • BIOGAS is derived from bacterial digestion of waste or other organic material.

Second generation biofuels are under development:
  • LIGNO-CELLULOSIC ETHANOL is produced by digestion and fermentation of grass-crops or wood pulp.
  • COAL-BASED DIESEL is what it sounds like, diesel produced from coal.

The Reality of the Biotech Solution

What the biotech industry doesn't want to know is the uncomfortable conclusions scientists have come to about biofuels.

A study by the University of Minnesota published in 2006 concluded that bioethanol from maize offered a modest net energy gain of 25% over oil, suggesting a release of 12% less greenhouse gases, while biodiesel from soya offered a more promising 93% net energy gain with 41% reduction in greenhouse gases. Their calculations took into account the direct agricultural, processing and transport expenses and useful by-products, but not the environmental damage nor increased demand on land and water. When viewing the bigger picture, it concluded that, if America's entire maize and entire soya crops were used to make biofuel, they would contribute less than 3% of current gasoline and diesel usage. This would put a serious strain on food supplies and prices.

A second study by Cornell University published in 2005 came to very unpromising conclusions.

Regarding bioethanol from the various sources:
  • maize requires an input of 29% more fossil-fuel energy than the net energy it can produce
  • switchgrass fermentation requires an input of 45% more fossil-fuel energy than the net energy it can produce
  • wood fermentation requires 57% more fossil fuel energy than the net energy it can produce.

Regarding biodiesel from various sources:
  • soya requires 27% more fossil fuel energy than the net energy it can produce
  • sunflower requires 118% more fossil fuel energy than the net energy it can produce.

Again, all direct costs were factored in, but environmental damage was not, so the bigger picture is much than their figures suggest.

The global reality of biofuel arithmetic was spelled out by the National Farmers Union of Canada at the beginning of the 2007:
  • if the world's entire supply of oilseeds were turned to biodiesel production, it would provide one sixth of the diesel fuel we currently consume
  • if the world's entire supply of corn and wheat were turned to bioethanol production it would supply less than one third of our gasoline needs
  • if a more realistic 10% of land was turned to fuel production, it would yield, at best, 2-3% of our liquid fuel needs
  • in our current situation where in six of the last seven years we have consumed more grains and oil seeds than we produced and during the last decade the world's crop land area has been static or declining while our population grows, using land and water to feed cars will starve people.

The World Wildlife Fund pointed out the fundamental flaw in the use of biofuels to tackle global warming: change of land use. Brazil is the world's model for successful conversion to bioethanol. Using sugarcane, it is possible to produce eight times as much fuel energy as it costs to grow and process. However, the major source (80%) of greenhouse gases comes not from petrol but from the carbon released by deforestation. Destroying a hectare of forest which can absorb 20 tons of CO2 and replanting it will sugar-cane to save 13 tons of CO2 does not add up to a reduction in greenhouse gases.

Ecologist reporter, Mark Anslow, pointed out the many flaws in industry's optimistic calculations of biofuel energy advantages. For example:
  • because oil is a super-concentrated form of energy, adding ethanol dilutes it. This means a larger volume of fuel is needed for the same energy output
  • hot weather will reduce bioethanol efficiency because the fuel will evaporate; cold weather will reduce biodiesel efficiency because it will have to be pre-heated before use
  • bioethanol and biodiesel are solvents and will result in faster wear and tear of equipment
  • useful by-products like glycerin which is used by the cosmetic industry and CO2 which is used by the soft drinks industry will easily saturate the market and become an expensive waste problem
  • the animal feed generated as a by-product is not good quality
  • it will take 14 years (the life-expectancy of a car) for our present petrol-fueled cars to be replaced by ethanol-fueled models; this is far too long
  • there are multiple sources of pollution inherent in biofuel production: pesticides and fertilisers from intensive crop monoculture; the refinement of ethanol produces nitrous oxides (a greenhouse gas three hundred time more potent than CO2 ), carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds (VOCs, these are ozone precursors and damage human health) and methane.

Friends of the Earth point out the additional danger that marginal land, which is susceptible to erosion, will be put back into intensive crop production, and washed away. It also has concerns over the increased cultivation of maize which uses more fertiliser than soya, and over the increasing use of pesticides necessary after continuous maize crop cultivation. An endless succession of GM crop varieties containing increasingly stacked genes for toxins, and genetic pollution of our food is inevitable.

The only winners in the biofuel game were described by the author of the Cornell University study:
“The (US) government spends more than $3 billion a year to subsidize ethanol production ... the vast majority of the subsidies do not go to farmers but to large ethanol-producing corporations”.
The goal of biofuel production seems to be to allow Americans to continue to live their petrol-dependent lifestyle and to drive their SUVs, but since the amount of grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol could feed one person for a year, this is clearly unnecessary, wasteful and unethical.”

The National Farmers Union of Canada summed up biofuel production as “publicly subsidized vaporization of food stocks” which are (temporarily) good for farmers, but “bad physics, bad biology and bad policy”.

In 2007, the United Nations acknowledged the impossibility of using agricultural land and water for fuel without risking mass starvation. Its report questioned the global effects of large-scale biofuel crop production, highlighting the inevitable forest clearance and ensuing climate, environmental and social damage, plus the loss of precious farm-land and implications for water supplies. The new drive to pour our staple food and feed crops into cars became revealed as a recipe for disaster. Finally, the UN recommended a five-year moratorium on biofuel production, to allow time for appropriate technologies to be devised and protective regulatory structures to be put in place.

By 2008, rocketing food-prices and mounting evidence that the drive for biofuels will only push food prices higher, are opening our eyes to the true implications of this 'infinitely' replaceable source of energy. Although America continues, predictably, to claim that the contribution of biofuels to food price inflation has been a minimal 3%, this has been widely derided: the International Monetary Fund estimates their impact as 20-30%, while a leading World Bank economist tried to conceal his estimate of a whopping 75% in a bid to avoid confrontation with the US.  
The non-biotech Solution

As Friends of The Earth pointed out “what is being lost amid the ethanol hype is a real debate about how to use energy more efficiently”. Technology and life-style choices which will reduce our energy consumption and our carbon footprint are a first step. The second step is to pour money, expertise and political will into developing a meaningful self-sufficient infrastructure of diverse, sustainable alternatives for our food and energy needs. 
Original material derived from GM-free Scotland News articles.