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Synthesis/Regeneration 49   (Spring 2009)

Surviving Climate Change

Badass Rant on Biofools: The Fallacy of Biofuels

by Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero

The biofuels fantasy dies hard! Even today, a significant portion of the American environmental movement clings hard to the notion that fuels derived from farm crops, animal waste and the like can wean the world off fossil fuels and thus defeat the twin threats of peak oil and global warming.

When I bring up the evidence that there are no sustainable biofuels, some of my American colleagues backtrack only slightly and switch to argument B: that while not perfect, biofuels can be a part of the solution. When I point out that such a statement is based on faith and not on reason, they take it personally and accuse me of being "uncivil."

So let's go over the basics again. According to a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study, if all of the corn grown in the USA was used for ethanol and all of the soy in the country was turned into biodiesel, it would only displace 12% of national gasoline demand and no more than 6% of diesel fuel demand. But actual experience has shown that even the NAS's grim conclusions might be too generous to the industry. In 2006 20% of American corn was turned into 5 billion gallons of ethanol, replacing a measly 1% of US gasoline consumption. You do the math. It's not rocket surgery.

In 2006 20% of American corn was turned into 5 billion gallons of ethanol, replacing a measly 1% of US gasoline consumption.

If you still believe that biofuels could have a part in a carbon-free future, then take a look at these numbers from Cornell University entomologist David Pimentel: "All green plants in the United States - including all crops, forests and grasslands, combined - collect about 32 quads (32 x 1015 BTU) of sunlight energy per year. The American population today burns more than three times that amount of energy annually as fossil fuels."

Whether or not biofuels compete with food is no longer a serious subject of discussion. In July 2008 the UK Guardian revealed a World Bank confidential study that concluded that the push for biofuels is responsible for 75% of the sharp rise in food prices worldwide. If it takes 22 pounds of corn to make one gallon of ethanol (according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), how could anyone possibly doubt that there is a food vs. fuel dilemma? Even without these data, it does not take a PhD to figure out that an acre of cropland devoted to biofuels is an acre of cropland that is not producing food.

Biofuel advocates tend not to question energy demand, and accept it as a given.

Biofuel advocates tend not to question energy demand, and accept it as a given. According to the US government's own 2006 International Energy Outlook, world energy consumption will rise 71% between 2003 and 2030. World oil demand rose 3.4% in a 12-month period between 2003 and 2004. According to the Earth Policy Institute, global greenhouse emissions went up 20% between 2000 and 2006, and a lot of that had to do with rising energy demand. As of 2008, over 3.5 million barrels of oil are burned per hour. And of course, the "Chindia" factor: China doubled its petroleum consumption from 1996 to 2006, and India is expected to triple its oil imports between 2005 and 2020.

The numbers clearly show that in order to make a dent in the world's rising energy demand, the great majority of biofuel production has to be moved south, far south, toward and across the equator, to the so-called Third World. Only in the Deep South of the world, in sub-Saharan Africa, South America and Southeast Asia, is there enough year-round sunlight and land area, and on top of that, land over there is cheap and human life is even cheaper.

And things are already moving that way. The government of India has plans to plant 14 million hectares with biofuel crops, mainly Jatropha. Malaysia currently produces 45% of the world's palm oil (a favorite for biodiesel production) on 4.17 million hectares, while its neighbor and competitor Indonesia intends to up its oil palm plantation area to 26 million hectares by 2025. Africans had better get ready, because the biggest players in the biofuels game are planning to seize 379 million hectares in 15 African countries (that's over five times the size of Texas).

And then there is Brazil, oh Brazil. With 62% of the international sugar market, Brazil is partnering with the United States to jointly maintain their supremacy over the world ethanol market. As for biodiesel, in 2008 Brazil overtook the USA as the world's leading soy producer. The country's fast-growing soy monocultures are increasingly being turned into biodiesel.

The allocation of huge tracts of land for export crops is nothing but a continuation of the colonial agroexport model, the same socially backward, feudal, environmentally destructive and exploitative model that progressives and environmentalists in both North and South have been working for so long to eradicate.

Those environmentalists who hold that the export of biofuels from South to North can be an engine of sustainable and socially equitable development are not facing the facts. They talk about biofuels produced by small family farms, bringing badly needed income to rural communities, and they talk about fair trade, certification schemes and corporate social responsibility. But the fact is that there is no place for small family farms in the brave new world of biofuels. Only huge horizon-to-horizon monoculture plantations can achieve the economies of scale needed for this endeavor.

...there is no place for small family farms in the brave new world of biofuels.

Large monocultures cannot be sustainably managed, they always need large energy inputs, and always require environmentally destructive pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. Any lingering doubts about the possible usefulness of the Green Revolution model were put to rest in April 2008 with the release of the report of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology (IAASTD), a four-year study of the world's agriculture sponsored by UN agencies and the World Bank. The study, conducted by over 400 experts, is to agriculture what the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is to global warming. The report, endorsed by 58 governments, warns that industrial agriculture has degraded the natural resources upon which our survival as a species depends and now threatens water, energy and climate security.

It's really sad to see some environmentalists rushing back to this obsolete and destructive mode of agriculture, ignoring all the critiques and advances achieved on the road to a truly sustainable agriculture, and all in the name of fighting global warming.

If past experience is any indication, we can expect to see demonstration projects that will aim to show that agroenergy production can be done in a sustainable, decentralized way by small family farms in rural villages, well in line with strict environ-mental and social responsibility standards. But these will be heavily subsidized by UN agencies, US foundations and European development agencies. These showcases of win-win eco-capitalism will not only be wholly dependent on a constant influx of philanthropic dollars, but they will also be insignificantly small in relation to the global biofuel agribusiness. They will, however, receive a disproportionate amount of publicity, thus giving the public the misleading impression that the biofuel business is actually moving toward sustainability.

The most immediate precedent for this type of greenwash is South America's Roundtable of Responsible Soy. Its name is pretty much self-explanatory: corporate representatives sit down with civil society and environmental leaders (in corporate lingo, a stakeholder dialogue) to negotiate a mutually beneficial deal that will facilitate the harmonious co-existence of some 40 million hectares of soy monocultures with the continent's ecosystems and local communities. And, of course, a certification scheme linked to a green seal of approval. Civil society groups like Friends of the Earth and Argentina's Grupo de Reflexi˘n Rural have repeatedly denounced this roundtable as a farce, and have pointed out that gigantic soy export monocultures can never be sustainable.

If these vast biofuel plantations are not to compete with the food needs of local populations then they'll have to be established in "other" lands. Put another way, the Amazon rainforest has to go. So will the African savannah, the Brazilian cerrado, the forests of Borneo and Colombia and whatever healthy ecosystems there are left in India. And the Pantanal, the world's largest wetland, right between Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil, that's got to go too.

The mass destruction of ecosystems at the altar of the biofuels revolution...has already begun.

The mass destruction of ecosystems at the altar of the biofuels revolution is not a matter of theory or opinion. It has already begun. Even before biofuels, the race was already on to turn the ecosystems of South America, especially Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, into soy for feedlot cattle in Europe and China.

"Unless the Brazilian government takes decisive action to prevent it, soy is likely to take over most of the Amazon basin over the next decade," warned GRAIN in 2007. "Within just a few years the relentless advance of the agricultural frontier into the Amazon basin is likely to push the tropical forest over the critical `tipping point' so that it starts to dry out and turn into savannah. Then, indeed, there will be no stopping the farmers, who will see no reason at all for not making economic use of the moribund forest."

The group points out that: "As the forest dies, hundreds of thousands of river dwellers, peasant families, and indigenous people will be disinherited, and the world will lose an extraordinary biomass, which plays a key role in regulating the global climate. Just as serious, the destruction of the Amazon forest will release some 90 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, enough by itself to increase the rate of global warming by 50%."

Recent studies have demonstrated that producing one ton of palm-oil biodiesel from peatlands in Southeast Asia releases 2-8 times more CO2 than is emitted by burning one ton of fossil fuel diesel. GRAIN comments that "While scientists debate whether the `net energy balance' of crops such as maize, soya, sugar cane and oil palm is positive or negative, the emissions caused by the creation of many of the agrofuels plantations send any potential benefit, literally, up in smoke."

Biofuels will not teleport themselves from South to North. A massive transportation infrastructure is needed and is already being built: superports, highways, railways and canals, with their associated impacts on delicate ecosystems, especially coastlines and wetlands. Brazil is already seeing the construction of highways, railways and ethanol ducts crisscrossing its territory. And further south, the massive Hidrovia project is underway, the dredging and broadening of the Parana and Paraguay rivers, which flow into Argentina south from Brazil, with the goal of permitting ocean-going cargo vessels to sail all the way up hundreds of kilometers to the Pantanal, and then come back down river laden with soy, among other raw materials.

Monoculture farming is impossible without synthetic nitrogen-based fertilizer.

Another reason plant biofuels cannot possibly work is the fertilizer issue. Monoculture farming is impossible without synthetic nitrogen-based fertilizer. Fertilizer is agriculture's single biggest contributor to global warming (even more than cattle), according to the Stern Review, a 700-page report on climate change commissioned by the British government.

Fertilizer manufacture requires large amounts of electricity (which comes from a utility that is likely burning coal or natural gas) as well as a source of hydrogen, which has to be a fossil fuel. And once applied, whatever nitrogen is not absorbed by the plants in the field combines with oxygen to form nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 296 times more potent than CO2. And the rest washes down to the water table, polluting the aquifer.

The Stern Review estimates that total agricultural greenhouse gas emissions are expected to increase by almost 30% in the period to 2020, with around half of the expected rise coming from the increased use of fertilizer. The global South is expected to almost double its use of fertilizer over the same period, and new biofuel plantations will surely account for an important part of this growth.

At this point the main question in the minds of many is: Can't synthetic fertilizer be replaced by compost, an environmentally sound alternative? Do we really have enough organic matter to spare to naturally fertilize the tens or hundreds of millions of hectares of monoculture that the biofuels revolution calls for? Is it fair to use all that compost to feed cars instead of people?

While turning noxious feedlot and slaughterhouse waste into energy is a way of addressing a waste problem, that waste is but a very small part of a feedlot's supermassive ecological footprint. Those environmentalists that are engaging cattle agribusiness companies to help make their feedlots more environmentally sound are doing a huge disservice, as they are undermining efforts to abolish feedlots.

The last playing card of the biofuel enthusiasts is so-called "second generation" cellulose-based biofuels. In this last line of defense, they acknowledge that the critics have a point, but that the ills of biofuels will be solved by yet non-existent processes that will use cellulose. In theory, this will make it possible to use any plant matter, even lawn clippings and dead wood, to produce ethanol. However, the bulk of these second generation biofuels will come from perennial grasses like switchgrass and Miscanthus, which are viewed as ideal sources of cellulose.

There is no indication that cellulose fuels effectively address the problems of the current generation of biofuels.

There is no indication that cellulose fuels effectively address the problems of the current generation of biofuels. A 2005 joint report by the US Departments of Energy and Agriculture notes that the use of wood, grasses, and "plant waste" for the production of cellulosic ethanol would require 1.3 billion tons of dry biomass a year. Obtaining this amount of biomass would be possible only by removing most of the country's agricultural residues, planting an area three times the size of Missouri under perennial crops like switchgrass, and putting all US farmland under "no-till" agriculture, say the report's authors.

Cellulose enthusiasts proclaim that "agricultural waste" will provide the necessary biomass to satisfy US energy demand, but as any ecologically conscious farmer can tell you, in nature and in agriculture there is no such thing as waste. That so-called waste is absolutely necessary to insure fertility and to make the compost that environmentalists like so much. And if all that plant matter is removed from the farm there will be no choice but to make up for it with fertilizer. So we're back on the fossil fuel treadmill. And that's assuming that cellulose-based ethanol will be possible someday! Cellulosic fuel is like the cure for cancer. The corporations tell us that they are both around the corner, but we never round that corner.

So, what am I getting at? It's really sad that so many US environmentalists have bought into the biofuels pipe dream. In order to believe that biofuels can be helpful, one has to assume an infinite planet with unlimited resources like water, land, organic matter and soil nutrients. It is not only sad but also disconcerting to see environmentalists thinking like Palin Republicans. It is odd for me to find myself telling environmentalists - not Cato libertarians or Bush voters - that our planet only has so much to go around, that it is not infinite. I thought environmentalists did not need to have that explained to them.

Pro-biofuel environmentalists rarely address energy demand, and thus accept it as a given. When they do touch on the subject, they do so in apolitical and value-neutral terms of efficiency, and refer to the work of eco-capitalist think tanks like the Rocky Mountain Institute and books such as Natural Capitalism. My response to those who think efficiency has no downside is that they should get acquainted with the Jevons paradox.

Demand can never recede to healthy levels that are well within the Earth's carrying capacity without tackling overproduction.

It is radical enough to say that demand and consumption must go down. In the mainstream discourse this is considered inherently uneconomical and downright unamerican. But questioning demand does not even come close to addressing the root problem: production. Demand can never recede to healthy levels that are well within the Earth's carrying capacity without tackling overproduction. Reducing production is a real poke in the eye to the dominant ideology, which holds that increasing production is the solution to all of the world's problems and is therefore a moral mandate of the highest order. And no economic issue can be meaningfully addressed without entering politics. So, back to square one.

This paper is based on remarks the author made at the "Surviving Climate Change: Producing Less and Enjoying it More" roundtable, June 2008, St. Louis. Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero, a self-described renaissance hack and impractical humanist, is a Puerto Rican journalist, environmental educator and author. He is as Senior Fellow of the Environmental Leadership Program, a Fellow of the Oakland Institute, and directs the Puerto Rico Project on Biosafety (http://bioseguridad.blogspot.com/).

[26 sep 09]

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