The buzz on biofuel
In March, US President George Bush met with the three largest automotive manufacturers in the US to discuss reducing US gasoline consumption by 20%. The discussions centred around ethanol, with GM, Ford and Chrysler agreeing to develop cars able to run on biofuel, or at least a mix of 85% biofuel and 15% gasoline. Derived from renewable sources, domestically produced, with minimal direct GHG emissions, biofuels appear to be a promising alternative. Biofuels range from energy crops raised solely for ethanol production (soybeans, corn) to biowaste made from agricultural and animal waste, and. except for GHGs emitted during transportation and production, biofuel combustion itself does not release carbon dioxide. It can also be mixed with gasoline to up to 20%, lessening reliance on fossil fuels and decreasing carbon dioxide emissions.
But it has become apparent recently that the production and sale of biofuels doesn't provide as neat an answer as had been hoped for. Problems with crop growth and its regulation, limited environmental benefits, serious potential damage and effects on the global economy present major limitations to its viability in the struggle against global warming. The GHG emissions and environmental damage generated during production vary greatly depending on the type of biofuel. 'Biowaste', or waste-derived biofuel, is produced by 'digestion' of agricultural byproducts and biodegradable waste, and does not generate significant carbon dioxide. Production of biofuel derived from energy crops grown specifically for energy generation (including sugar-, soy- or corn-based ethanol, methanol and biogas), however, sometimes use fossil fuels, arguably countering the initial benefits.17 Growing soybeans and corn also requires nitrogen-rich fertilisers, which, when run off by rains into nearby rivers, could cause significant environmental damage.18 In March, European leaders agreed to make biofuel 10% of all European transport fuel by 2020. This has encouraged countries such as Indonesia to increase palm oil production, which has traditionally been developed at the expense of the rainforest and has led to large-scale forest fires, which are a major contributor of GHGs. In spite of this, 'no mandatory certification exists at present that will guarantee that tropical rainforests [. . .] are not destroyed for the production of palm oil', said Andris Piebalgs, the European Energy Commissioner. Such inadequate regulation, in spite of the laudable intention, might actually worsen global warming by accelerating the destruction of tropical forests.19
The first signs of the social implications of using food for fuel also became apparent in early 2007. 'The growth of the biofuel industry has triggered increases not only in the prices of corn, oilseeds, and other grains but also in the prices of seemingly unrelated crops and products. [. . .] Rising feed prices are also hitting the livestock and poultry industries', noted experts Ford Runge and Benjamin Senauer.20 Rising food prices in the US or other rich nations could perhaps be considered worthwhile for the production of environment-friendly fuel. But in poor countries, such as Mexico, the sudden 50% increase in the price of corn-based tortillas in January pushed people to the streets in protest, after which the President was pressured to agree to cap corn flour prices. Increasingly, warns Noam Chomsky in the Independent News, as starchy food staples-corn and sugar cane in the Americas, cassava in sub-Saharan Africa-are snatched up for ethanol production, the poor will have fewer and fewer options to feed themselves.21
It appears there are no simple technical fixes. Carbon offsetting and waste-derived biofuels could play a role if properly regulated. There is a role for leading businesses to help find the right regulatory frameworks, both statutory and professional, and at national and international levels, to allow business to apply its entrepreneurial flair to the climate challenge. In addition, as the limits of the current solutions are all too apparent, business could support government frameworks for the development of other renewable energy resources and new forms of consumer-producer collaboration so that people can gain the utility they require for less resources and energy.