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John Wayne's Holster: BioWillie Runs Off the Road
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Thursday, April 24, 2008

BioWillie Runs Off the Road

Burning the Rainforest - Photo Credit: NASA

Global warming! That seems to be the modern buzz word (or words). Anyone paying the slightest bit of attention these days has certainly heard something about this problem. While the causes of global warming may be multiform, there is an undeniable link between carbon dioxide emissions and the temperature increase. As such, most of the solutions being put forward are centered on decreasing the amount of CO2 dumped into the atmosphere.

Consumption of fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas, and oil are among to major industrial sources of CO2. As it now stands, fossil fuels are the major power source that keeps our economy running and helps to maintain our lavish standard of living at its current unsustainable level. One only needs a few cerebral sparks to figure out that we could reduce our CO2 output by limiting or eliminating the use of these fossils fuels. To do so would require an alternative source to take its place.

One of the most popular alternatives lies with the sprouting bio-fuels industry. In a nutshell, biofuels are essentially combustible forms of biomass-derived energy such as ethanol or bio-derived oils (biodiesel). On paper, these fuels have some advantages over fossil fuels, the main one being that they are so-called carbon neutral. That is, the CO2 released on combustion is equal to the CO2 the plants absorbed during their growth. That means - or is supposed to mean - no net carbon increase.

Sounds great! Right? Ah, not so fast Willie…

BioWillie Fuel - Photo Credit: MSNBC

In reality, biofuels are not all they are cracked-up to be. For example, biofuels are not carbon neutral. To say that they are is to ignore all the petroleum-based fertilizers used to grow the plants, it ignores the energy required to harvest plants, and the energy used to extract and process the oils. And these energy inputs are significant, as reflected in the cost of the biofuels produced.

Price competitiveness aside, one could validly argue that any additional cost of these biofuels would be more than compensated for by a decrease in carbon emissions. After all, that is one of the goals. For this reason alone, we should continue to promote their use.

Again, things are not as they appear.

A recent report in the journal Science shows that land-use changes, ironically encouraged by biofuel production, have actually resulted in an increase in carbon emissions. That’s right, an increase!

It seem fair to say that Biofuels Cause Global Warming!

As the price in the marketplace for biofuels has continued to increase, farmers have responded by converting forests and grasslands (which absorb CO2), into biofuel croplands. These biofuels “farms” absorb less CO2 than the grasses and trees they replaced, and the CO2 they do absorb will be released into the atmosphere upon combustion. And let’s not forget the CO2 released as a result of energy inputs during production. All told, it is now predicted that the so-called carbon neutral biofuels will lead to an unanticipated increase in carbon by 50%, if not more.

But that is not the whole story. Not all the source material for biofuel production is coming from newly converted forests and grasslands. Some is coming from farms that previously produced food crops. As a result, there is less food available as animal feed and food for people. And the food that is available is increasing in price to the point where it is becoming unaffordable. Just take a look at the commodities market over the last year, as the prices of soy and grains have sky-rocketed. People are going hungry and they are rioting in the streets. Most of the starvation and rioting is occurring among the poorest, who are affected the most. But I guess that is OK, as long as someone is making a profit. At least, that seems to be the standard in the west. And at least we don’t have to conserve.

Theoretically, biofuels seem like a good idea. I for one am for anything reasonable that will cut carbon emission. Realistically, biofuels are not a solution. They are like a patch or facade that simply hides the problem but does not fix it. Similarly, other alternative energy sources, like solar or wind power, also seem to have advantages. But they too have their inherent problems which I will discuss in a later blog post.

When you boil it all down, the real problem is one of gluttony and irresponsibility. I think we need to take a step back and look at ourselves in the mirror. Technology and our selfish consumptive habits got us into the energy/environmental problems we face today. Somehow, we blindly beleive that newer technologies will get us out. Experience proves they won't. What we really need to do is to begin to conserve energy, and live within our means.

So before you hop on Willie’s BioDiesel bus, make sure you know what road you are going to be driving on. Most of the roads look pretty bad. There's a good chance that Willie's Biodiesel bus is going off the road...especially if Willie is driving.


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