Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Food for Thought

Republican Politics, American Style
Published on April 17th in Metro Eireann By Charles Laffiteau

In recent weeks I have pointed to the negative impacts of global climate change to our health from tropical diseases and to our food supply from declining fish stocks. But even though many nations, including Ireland, have promised to take steps to curb CO² emissions over the last decade, the world's output of CO² emissions now totals over 10 billion tons a year and is continuing to increase each year rather than decrease.
So last week I closed my discussion about one of the negative consequences of climate change due to global warming, by saying that the consequences will be even direr for our children than they will be for us and then asking the question; “How will you explain your inaction to them?” Well today I want to discuss one of the few, but probably most visible, actions we have taken to reduce our current levels of CO² gas emissions, the production of biofuels.
While the idea of turning a product like soybean oil into an earth-friendly fuel such as biodiesel has merit, ample evidence suggests the concept has many limitations as well as unintended consequences. Alas, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but there are no quick, cheap, or easy ways to reduce the CO² emissions which are the primary cause of global warming. Believe me, I wish there were because dealing with this issue is going to cost me time, money and some inconvenience, just as it will everyone else.
But these are not sufficient excuses for us to continue to ignore the issue and simply let our children deal with the negative consequences of our inaction. Such an attitude is irresponsible at best and downright selfish if we are really honest about it. “Hey kids, sorry about the condition of the planet we are leaving you. We knew there was a problem with the way we were doing things, but since we couldn’t think of a quick, cheap or easy way to deal with it, we decided to just let you live with the consequences.”
Mind you I am not condemning Richard Branson for trying to experiment with powering his jet engines with biofuels. I applaud such efforts, however misguided they may be. At least Richard Branson is trying to do something to reduce his business’ carbon footprint, which is more than can be said for most other business enterprises.
But biofuels are not the panacea many in business and government once believed they were. There may be a fairly limited place for biofuels in the overall scheme of reducing CO² emissions, but it will never rise to the level that the many politicians and lobbyist engineers of tax breaks for the production of biofuels envision. Let me elaborate now on some of the reasons why biofuels are simply not a viable solution.
As we all know, appearances can often be deceiving. On the surface corn and sugar cane look like great sources of ethanol for our automotive fuel needs because when they are burned as a biofuel they emit far less CO² greenhouse gases than our traditional fossil fuels of coal, oil and natural gas. Moreover, there appears be a secondary benefit in that these biofuel crops also act to remove CO² from the atmosphere while they are growing in the field. The net effect makes them carbon-neutral, which is ideal for a fuel source because it means they do not add more CO² gases to our already overwhelmed atmosphere when they are burned than they remove while being grown in the field.
Sounds great at first blush, but when you drill down below the surface you find there are some unintended consequences that result from producing more biofuel crops like corn and sugar cane which will actually add to the buildup of CO² gases in the atmosphere. In fact burning biofuels could actually prove to be more harmful to the earth’s atmosphere than the current burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil is.
Princeton University recently released a study which showed that clearing temperate forests, tropical rainforests and or grasslands to grow biofuel crops unleashes long-sequestered carbon into the atmosphere. The earth’s forests and oceans capture and retain much of the excess CO² gases we emit by burning carbon based fossil fuels. While planting sugar cane or corn on land already in crop production is not a problem, clearing land to grow more food and or biofuel crops releases the huge quantities of carbon stored there into the air. This makes the current situation with CO² gases worse instead of better.
A Nature Conservancy study supports the Princeton University study but also goes a step further and shows that “converting rainforests, peat lands, savannas, or grasslands to produce biofuels in Brazil, Southeast Asia and the United States creates a ‘biofuel carbon debt’ by releasing 17 to 420 times more carbon dioxide (CO²) than the fossil fuels they replace.” The Nature Conservancy and other studies also point to other problems associated with producing more biofuel crops.
Growing corn requires the use of irrigation and lots of water. Water that is already in short supply in many areas of the world and a problem that will only get worse as the global climate continues to warm and certain areas get even drier than they currently are. There will be competition between homes and farmers for this water not to mention competition between consumers of grains for use as food and businesses buying grain to produce more biofuels. This last concern is potentially the most serious one.
Last year, two University of Minnesota professors wrote; “By putting pressure on global supplies of edible crops, the surge in ethanol production will translate into higher prices for both processed and staple foods around the world, If oil prices remain high -- which is likely -- the people most vulnerable to the price hikes brought on by the biofuel boom will be those in countries that both suffer food deficits and import petroleum.” That’s a lot of food for thought!

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