Ethanol Causes Global Warming

Stein X Leikanger
by Stein X Leikanger
ethanol causes global warming

Politicians around the world were up against the wall. The World Trade Organization (WTO) was slowly picking away at all their fancy ways of sidetracking public funds into hopelessly anachronistic and inefficient agricultural subsidies. And the agribusiness beats the mil/industrial complex when it comes to lobbying skills. Even French politicians, famous for ignoring the plight of their people, tremble at the thought of another tractor phalanx of mad farmers pulling up in front of the National Assembly and launching putrid brie at their doorstep. Enter Peak Oil.

The WTO rulings are in place to regulate reasonable and equal trading practices between nations. But they cannot proscribe internal actions designed to protect the national infrastructure against potential disruptions. Running out of oil is one such potential downer. Enter a substitute that "solved" two problems at once:

1) How to keep moving money to the agribusiness without the WTO getting pesky.

2) Providing a palliative against Peak Oil. "See, we'll be driving on corn on the cob instead. Nothing has to change."

Well, now maybe it will have to. Bioethanol is a wildly inefficient way of propelling anything, whether aqua, auto or aero. Even in the most benign scenarios, the energy efficiency is pretty much 1:1. Add the fact that you're converting land from growing crops for food to growing fuel for cars, and you have a potential problem on your hands. To wit: rising food prices.

Turns out ethanol is bad in so many ways you don't even want to BEGIN thinking about it. Fortunately, we have people who are willing to do both the thinking and the research for us. The journal Science has just published two papers indicating that clearing land for biofuels will aid global warming.

Wouldn't you know it, the very thing that is going to cure us will kill us faster? Researchers from Princeton University, Woods Hole Research Center and Iowa State University (smack dab in the heart of E85 country) have all concluded that over 30 years, the use of traditional corn-based ethanol will produce twice as much greenhouse gas emissions as regular gasoline.

In the words of the report’s lead author, “this is not good news.” Surprise! There are hidden environmental costs to producing biofuels. "The land we're likely to plow up is the land that we've had taking up carbon for decades," Tim Searchinger at Princeton pronounced. "We can't get to a result, no matter how heroically we make assumptions on behalf of corn ethanol, where it will actually generate greenhouse-gas benefits."

Meanwhile, the governementos of the world are sleeping soundly in the knowledge that they have done a good thing, keeping rotting agricultural produce off the Capitol steps and letting people motor as usual.

Over at the Casa Blanca, the chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality isn’t surrendering the federal tit without a fight. James L. Connaughton says biofuels' benefits remain tangible.

"Like any issue, there are ways to do it right and there are ways to do things wrong, and the same is the case to biofuels. We move as rapidly as we can to second-generation [biofuels] because those offer the best opportunity for a low environmental profile."

And the Executive VP of the Biotechnology Industry Organization couldn't agree more. "It is much more logical to produce biofuels that recycle carbon,” Brent Erickson insisted. “Even if a short-term carbon debt is created. Even if it's 167 years, you're still better off than burning oil that can never be paid off."

He could have added that biofuels also offers the best opportunity for an abysmal energy ROI. Kind of like buying Eli Manning out of the Giants because you need someone to throw warmups to your starting High-School quarterback.

Michael O'Hare, who really knows his biofuels, is glum. Yes, another academic, from Berkeley of all places. What does he know?

"The bottom line of these complicated chains of events is that using crops for biofuels anywhere induces land use changes somewhere, and while the effect isn't a simple acre-for-acre replacement, and we don't know exactly how big the land-clearing carbon hit should be for a generic gallon of biodiesel or bioethanol, betting now is that it is most unlikely to be small enough to view crop-based biofuels as green substitutes for petroleum."

Well, doesn't that throw a wrench in the spokes of politicos and car honchos alike? Not to mention members of the green mafia who have been seduced by the notion they were supporting agriculture over oil wars.

It's worth restating. All those of us now alive have enjoyed an extended period with ridiculously effective energy readily available at an unbelievably low price. There are no viable substitutes to the energy efficiency of petroleum, and demand is outstripping supply, and faster than we'd like to think. What next? Sorry, but there is no easy answer.

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  • Landcrusher Landcrusher on Feb 18, 2008

    At the risk of incurring the wrath of SW... I talked to a guy from the Phillipines this weekend who said his family was like mine. He is close your age I suspect. He said his parents grew out of it as well, but that in the Phillipines there are lots of staples they still do it in many ways. He thinks it's just a matter of poverty.

  • Engineer Engineer on Feb 19, 2008
    Darfur and Rwanda are basically examples of where Malthus was absolutely tragically right. How to put this politely? BULL MANURE! Rwanda had a lot to do with people getting swept up in mass hysteria. And, of course, there was that cowardly reaction from the UN. Not to mention the deciding part of the Clinton duo, you know the one who couldn't keep his pants up. Notice that Rwanda is actually doing pretty well, at present. The economy has been growing at about 10% per year in recent years. Perhaps Rwandans realized that they can't wait for outsiders to solve their problems. Let's hope the rest of Africa is watching. Darfur is about ethnic cleansing by the Arab government. Nothing that proves Malthus right. This time we get the Decider at his most indecisive, and, of course, the UN is ready for another debate on the issue... Neither Rwanda or Darfur had/has anything to do with limited resources. It is about brave but evil leadership, and it's ability to overpower well intentioned cowards. It's political, nothing else. Actually Malthus has never been proven wrong since his theory was put forward. LOL! What 200 years isn't long enough to conclude that he was an idiot? Remember, we were supposed to run out of food within a decade of his predictions. What do you want? Another 200 years? A thousand? Will anything convince you?

  • Stuart de Baker This is depressing, and I don't own one of these.
  • Stuart de Baker Chris! When asked for car advice, I just ask 'em what they want out of a car. And I have my prompts: fun to drive, safety, economy, longevity (I have Consumer Reports annual auto issues going back so I can help people with used cars, too), road trips vs in town, etc, and what sort of body style do they want and why. (If they want an SUV because they think it's safer, I'll suggest they consider large sedans, but if they put major emphasis on safety, I'll check the latest safety stats for whatever cars might satisfy their other desires.
  • Stuart de Baker I don't speak to Jeeps and I don't approve of driving off road, especially in places like Utah where the vegetation won't come back for years.
  • Kanu Actually, I think this makes a certain amount of sense.The average age of light vehicles in operation in the US is now 12.2 years. This means that the typical useful life of a light vehicle is around 25 years.The big virtue of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is that the infotainment system in your car uses the relatively up-to-date technology of your smartphone rather than the vintage technology that existed when your car was built.But the useful life of EVs is nowhere near 25 years. It’s more like 8 years. That’s when the battery needs to be replaced, and that’s when you discover that the price of the new battery is more than the market value of your eight-year-old car with a new battery.So if your EV has built-in infotainment technology, that technology will still be relatively up-to-date when your EV goes to the scrap yard.
  • Deanst I like most things Peugeot recently, along with Skoda wagons and, for practicality’s sake, a Toyota Corolla hybrid wagon. And the Honda e.