The most destructive crop on earth is no solution to the energy crisis
- Fw: [fuelcell-energy]
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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
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
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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