Monday, February 18, 2008

[PBN] The Only Sustainable biofuels: Chip Fat


Published on Tuesday, February 12, 2008 by The Guardian/UK

Apart From Used Chip Fat, There Is No Such Thing as a Sustainable Biofuel

Even capitalists now admit the oil crisis is real. But their solutions
border on lunacy as they avoid the obvious answer

by George Monbiot

Now they might start sitting up. They wouldn't listen to the
environmentalists or even the geologists. Can governments ignore the
capitalists? A report published last week by Citibank, and so far
unremarked on by the media, proposes "genuine difficulties" in
increasing the production of crude oil, "particularly after 2012″.
Though 175 big drilling projects will start in the next four years, "the
fear remains that most of this supply will be offset by high levels of
decline". The oil industry has scoffed at the notion that oil supplies
might peak, but "recent evidence of failed production growth would tend
to shift the burden of proof on to the producers", as they have been
unable to respond to the massive rise in prices. "Total global liquid
hydrocarbon production has essentially flatlined since mid 2005 at just
north of 85m barrels per day."

The issue is complicated, as ever, by the refusal of the Opec cartel to
raise production. What has changed, Citibank says, is that the non-Opec
countries can no longer answer the price signal. Does this mean that oil
production in these nations has already peaked? If so, what do our
governments intend to do?

Nine months ago, I asked the British government to send me its
assessments of global oil supply. The results astonished me: there
weren't any. Instead it relied exclusively on one external source: a
book published by the International Energy Agency. The omission became
stranger still when I read this book and discovered that it was a crude
polemic, dismissing those who questioned future oil supplies as
"doomsayers" without providing robust evidence to support its
conclusions. Though the members of Opec have a powerful interest in
exaggerating their reserves in order to boost their quotas, the IEA
relied on their own assessments of future supply.

Last week I tried again, and I received the same response: "The
government agrees with IEA analysis that global oil (and gas) reserves
are sufficient to sustain economic growth for the foreseeable future."
Perhaps it hasn't noticed that the IEA is now backtracking. The
Financial Times says the agency "has admitted that it has been paying
insufficient attention to supply bottlenecks as evidence mounts that oil
is being discovered more slowly than once expected … natural decline
rates for discovered fields are a closely guarded secret in the oil
industry, and the IEA is concerned that the data it currently holds is
not accurate." What if the data turns out to be wrong? What if Opec's
stated reserves are a pack of lies? What contingency plans has the
government made? Answer comes there none.

The European commission, by contrast, does have a plan, and it's a
disaster. It recognises that "the oil dependence of the transport sector
… is one of the most serious problems of insecurity in energy supply
that the EU faces". Partly in order to diversify fuel supplies, partly
to cut greenhouse gas emissions, it has ordered the member states to
ensure that by 2020 10% of the petroleum our cars burn must be replaced
with biofuels. This won't solve peak oil, but it might at least put it
into perspective by causing an even bigger problem.

To be fair to the commission, it has now acknowledged that biofuels are
not a green panacea. Its draft directive rules that they shouldn't be
produced by destroying primary forest, ancient grasslands or wetlands,
as this could cause a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Nor
should any biodiverse ecosystem be damaged to grow biofuels.

It sounds good, but there are three problems. If biofuels can't be
produced in virgin habitats, they must be confined to existing
agricultural land, which means that every time we fill up the car we
snatch food from people's mouths. This, in turn, raises the price of
food, which encourages farmers to destroy pristine habitats - primary
forests, ancient grasslands, wetlands and the rest - in order to grow
it. We can congratulate ourselves on remaining morally pure, but the
impacts are the same. There is no way out of this: on a finite planet
with tight food supplies, you either compete with the hungry or clear
new land.

The third problem is that the commission's methodology has just been
blown apart by two new papers. Published in Science magazine, they
calculate the total carbon costs of biofuel production. When land
clearance (caused either directly or by the displacement of food crops)
is taken into account, all the major biofuels cause a massive increase
in emissions.

Even the most productive source - sugar cane grown in the scrubby
savannahs of central Brazil - creates a carbon debt which takes 17 years
to repay. As the major carbon reductions must be made now, the net
effect of this crop is to exacerbate climate change. The worst source -
palm oil displacing tropical rainforest growing in peat - invokes a
carbon debt of some 840 years. Even when you produce ethanol from maize
grown on "rested" arable land (which in the EU is called set-aside and
in the United States is called conservation reserve), it takes 48 years
to repay the carbon debt. The facts have changed. Will the policy follow?

Many people believe there's a way of avoiding these problems: by making
biofuels not from the crops themselves but from crop wastes - if
transport fuel can be manufactured from straw or grass or wood chips,
there are no implications for land use, and no danger of spreading
hunger. Until recently I believed this myself.

Unfortunately most agricultural "waste" is nothing of the kind. It is
the organic material that maintains the soil's structure, nutrients and
store of carbon. A paper commissioned by the US government proposes
that, to help meet its biofuel targets, 75% of annual crop residues
should be harvested. According to a letter published in Science last
year, removing crop residues can increase the rate of soil erosion a
hundredfold. Our addiction to the car, in other words, could lead to
peak soil as well as peak oil.

Removing crop wastes means replacing the nutrients they contain with
fertiliser, which causes further greenhouse gas emissions. A recent
paper by the Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen suggests that emissions of
nitrous oxide (a greenhouse gas 296 times more powerful than CO2) from
nitrogen fertilisers wipe out all the carbon savings biofuels produce,
even before you take the changes in land use into account.

Growing special second-generation crops, such as trees or switchgrass,
doesn't solve the problem either: like other energy crops, they displace
both food production and carbon emissions. Growing switchgrass, one of
the new papers in Science shows, creates a carbon debt of 52 years. Some
people propose making second-generation fuels from grass harvested in
natural meadows or from municipal waste, but it's hard enough to produce
them from single feedstocks; far harder to manufacture them from a
mixture. Apart from used chip fat, there is no such thing as a
sustainable biofuel.

All these convoluted solutions are designed to avoid a simpler one:
reducing the consumption of transport fuel. But that requires the use of
a different commodity. Global supplies of political courage appear,
unfortunately, to have peaked some time ago.

– © Guardian News and Media Limited 2008
Mary Taylor(Dr)
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