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The most destructive crop on earth is no solution to the energy crisis

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    Fw: [fuelcell-energy] ... The most destructive crop on earth is no solution to the energy crisis By promoting biodiesel as a substitute, we have missed the
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 5, 2005
      Fw: [fuelcell-energy]

      ---------- Forwarded Message ----------
      The most destructive crop on earth is no solution to the energy crisis
      By promoting biodiesel as a substitute, we have missed the fact that
      it is worse than the fossil-fuel burning it replaces

      George Monbiot
      Tuesday December 6, 2005


      Over the past two years I have made an uncomfortable discovery. Like
      most environmentalists, I have been as blind to the constraints
      affecting our energy supply as my opponents have been to climate
      change. I now realise that I have entertained a belief in magic.
      In 2003, the biologist Jeffrey Dukes calculated that the fossil fuels
      we burn in one year were made from organic matter "containing 44 x
      1018 grams of carbon, which is more than 400 times the net primary
      productivity of the planet's current biota". In plain English, this
      means that every year we use four centuries' worth of plants and

      The idea that we can simply replace this fossil legacy - and the
      extraordinary power densities it gives us - with ambient energy is
      the stuff of science fiction. There is simply no substitute for
      cutting back. But substitutes are being sought everywhere. They are
      being promoted today at the climate talks in Montreal, by states -
      such as ours - that seek to avoid the hard decisions climate change
      demands. And at least one substitute is worse than the fossil-fuel
      burning it replaces.

      The last time I drew attention to the hazards of making diesel fuel
      from vegetable oils, I received as much abuse as I have ever been
      sent for my stance on the Iraq war. The biodiesel missionaries, I
      discovered, are as vociferous in their denial as the executives of
      Exxon. I am now prepared to admit that my previous column was wrong.
      But they're not going to like it. I was wrong because I
      underestimated the fuel's destructive impact.

      Before I go any further, I should make it clear that turning used
      chip fat into motor fuel is a good thing. The people slithering
      around all day in vats of filth are performing a service to society.
      But there is enough waste cooking oil in the UK to meet a 380th of
      our demand for road transport fuel. Beyond that, the trouble begins.

      When I wrote about it last year, I thought that the biggest problem
      caused by biodiesel was that it set up a competition for land use.
      Arable land that would otherwise have been used to grow food would
      instead be used to grow fuel. But now I find that something even
      worse is happening. The biodiesel industry has accidentally invented
      the world's most carbon-intensive fuel.

      In promoting biodiesel - as the EU, the British and US governments
      and thousands of environmental campaigners do - you might imagine
      that you are creating a market for old chip fat, or rapeseed oil, or
      oil from algae grown in desert ponds. In reality you are creating a
      market for the most destructive crop on earth.

      Last week, the chairman of Malaysia's federal land development
      authority announced that he was about to build a new biodiesel plant.
      His was the ninth such decision in four months. Four new refineries
      are being built in Peninsula Malaysia, one in Sarawak and two in
      Rotterdam. Two foreign consortiums - one German, one American - are
      setting up rival plants in Singapore. All of them will be making
      biodiesel from the same source: oil from palm trees.

      "The demand for biodiesel," the Malaysian Star reports, "will come
      from the European Community ... This fresh demand ... would, at the
      very least, take up most of Malaysia's crude palm oil inventories."
      Why? Because it is cheaper than biodiesel made from any other crop.

      In September, Friends of the Earth published a report about the
      impact of palm oil production. "Between 1985 and 2000," it
      found, "the development of oil-palm plantations was responsible for
      an estimated 87 per cent of deforestation in Malaysia". In Sumatra
      and Borneo, some 4 million hectares of forest have been converted to
      palm farms. Now a further 6 million hectares are scheduled for
      clearance in Malaysia, and 16.5 million in Indonesia.

      Almost all the remaining forest is at risk. Even the famous Tanjung
      Puting national park in Kalimantan is being ripped apart by oil
      planters. The orangutan is likely to become extinct in the wild.
      Sumatran rhinos, tigers, gibbons, tapirs, proboscis monkeys and
      thousands of other species could go the same way. Thousands of
      indigenous people have been evicted from their lands, and some 500
      Indonesians have been tortured when they tried to resist. The forest
      fires which every so often smother the region in smog are mostly
      started by the palm growers. The entire region is being turned into a
      gigantic vegetable oil field.

      Before oil palms, which are small and scrubby, are planted, vast
      forest trees, containing a much greater store of carbon, must be
      felled and burnt. Having used up the drier lands, the plantations are
      moving into the swamp forests, which grow on peat. When they've cut
      the trees, the planters drain the ground. As the peat dries it
      oxidises, releasing even more carbon dioxide than the trees. In terms
      of its impact on both the local and global environments, palm
      biodiesel is more destructive than crude oil from Nigeria.

      The British government understands this. In a report published last
      month, when it announced that it would obey the EU and ensure that
      5.75% of our transport fuel came from plants by 2010, it
      admitted "the main environmental risks are likely to be those
      concerning any large expansion in biofuel feedstock production, and
      particularly in Brazil (for sugar cane) and south-east Asia (for palm
      oil plantations)."

      It suggested that the best means of dealing with the problem was to
      prevent environmentally destructive fuels from being imported. The
      government asked its consultants whether a ban would infringe world
      trade rules. The answer was yes: "Mandatory environmental
      criteria ... would greatly increase the risk of international legal
      challenge to the policy as a whole." So it dropped the idea of
      banning imports, and called for "some form of voluntary scheme"
      instead. Knowing that the creation of this market will lead to a
      massive surge in imports of palm oil, knowing that there is nothing
      meaningful it can do to prevent them, and knowing that they will
      accelerate rather than ameliorate climate change, the government has
      decided to go ahead anyway.

      At other times it happily defies the EU. But what the EU wants and
      what the government wants are the same. "It is essential that we
      balance the increasing demand for travel," the government's report
      says, "with our goals for protecting the environment." Until
      recently, we had a policy of reducing the demand for travel. Now,
      though no announcement has been made, that policy has gone. Like the
      Tories in the early 1990s, the Labour administration seeks to
      accommodate demand, however high it rises. Figures obtained last week
      by the campaigning group Road Block show that for the widening of the
      M1 alone the government will pay �3.6bn - more than it is spending on
      its entire climate change programme. Instead of attempting to reduce
      demand, it is trying to alter supply. It is prepared to sacrifice the
      south-east Asian rainforests in order to be seen to be doing
      something, and to allow motorists to feel better about themselves.

      All this illustrates the futility of the technofixes now being
      pursued in Montreal. Trying to meet a rising demand for fuel is
      madness, wherever the fuel might come from. The hard decisions have
      been avoided, and another portion of the biosphere is going up in





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