Are biofuels really greener than the fossil fuels they displace?
In a recent column I pointed out that electric cars are only as green as the fuel used to generate the electricity they consume.
For internal-combustion-powered vehicles, much of the focus has been on trying to reduce carbon emissions by adding ethanol to gasoline and vegetable oil to diesel. These biofuels are sourced mainly from cereal grain and vegetable oil. Ethanol is manufactured by fermenting and distilling grain, while vegetable oil comes mainly from palm trees.
Biofuel has become an enormous global industry, producing some 100 billion litres annually. Mandatory ethanol and vegetable oil standards have been enacted in 64 countries.
But biofuels fail on several fronts.
First we need to correct the popular misconception that burning biofuel produces significantly lower emissions than gasoline or diesel. In reality, there’s little difference. Essentially, all of the hypothesized emission reduction relies on the premise that, since plants consume carbon dioxide to grow, the carbon they remove approximates the carbon released when burned. This is the basis for the biofuel industry’s claim of zero net emissions.
But just as the zero-emissions electric car fallacy ignores the environmental impacts of electricity generation, the zero-emissions biofuel myth ignores the environmental impacts of production. And there’s a lot of evidence that these production impacts cause very serious environmental damage, while exacerbating global food shortages and creating price escalations.
Let’s start with ethanol fuel. The United States and Brazil are by far the largest producers. In the U.S., some five billion bushels of corn are used annually to produce 49 billion litres of ethanol fuel through the same highly energy-intensive fermentation and distillation process used to produce whiskey. That 49 billion litres of ethanol are enough to fill 65 billion standard whiskey bottles.
Multiple studies, including by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, conclude that the fossil fuel used to produce corn ethanol creates essentially the same carbon emissions as the gasoline and diesel displaced.
But that’s only part of the environmental impact. Rising corn prices led to the draining and tillage of ecologically important wetlands. And increased fertilizer use has sent nutrient-rich run-off into streams and rivers, resulting in weed-choked, oxygen-starved water courses devoid of fish and other aquatic life.
Meanwhile in Brazil, almost one million acres a year of carbon dioxide-absorbing tropical forest are clear cut and replaced by sugar cane for ethanol production. Studies show that the net effect is about 50 per cent more carbon emissions than by fuelling automobiles with fossil fuels.
Then there’s the food-or-fuel issue. The cereal grain required to produce enough ethanol to fill the fuel tank of an average-size car would feed one person for a year. In 2000, some 70 per cent of global corn imports came from the U.S., but that important global food supply has largely been redirected to ethanol production. So while U.S. Corn Belt farmers buy bigger tractors and more expensive pickups, international food-focused non-governmental organizations such as Oxfam cite biofuels as contributing to food supply shortages and price increases that disproportionately hurt the world’s poor.
What about the environmental impacts of producing palm oil for biodiesel?
Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil and the island of Borneo, in particular, is a great place to produce it, provided you first burn one of the world’s most important rainforests. A visit to this land is a depressing lesson in the unintended consequences of actions taken by politicians half a world away. I have witnessed the lung-choking smoke as hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of rainforest were burned to create huge industrial palm tree farms. The same scenario is playing out in remote parts of Indonesian Sumatra.
How ironic that decisions aimed at environmental benefit are permanently destroying the lungs of our planet, obliterating the way of life of aboriginals who have lived in harmony with nature for centuries, and wiping out habitat for endangered species like orangutan.
A Natural Geographic article entitled biofuels: The Original Car Fuel, states “Gasoline and diesel are actually ancient biofuels… made from decomposed plants and animals that have been buried in the ground for millions of years.” Trying to replace these ancient biofuels with fuels made from plants grown today is one of mankind’s greatest environmental blunders.
Gwyn Morgan is a retired Canadian energy industry leader and current board member and past CEO of EnCana.