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Biofuels: Driving in the Wrong Direction?
Alan AtKisson, 29 Feb 08

My ethanol car is not looking so good these days. I don't mean the scratch on the right rear bumper, caused by a nice lady who was distracted by her kids while backing out of her parking place last Saturday. I mean, of course, the carbon dioxide emissions coming from the tailpipe, and even the ethanol itself.

Back in 2002, when my wife and I bought one of the early "Flexifuel" cars in Sweden, I felt very good about myself. A Flexifuel can be driven on 85% bioethanol mixed with ordinary petrol (that's why it's called "E85"). New to Sweden, I also believed the sales person when he informed me that most of the ethanol in this country came from forest byproducts. Using E85 resulted in about 70% lower carbon dioxide emissions compared to a normal petrol car, he said. My global warming-conscience was relatively clean.

Owning an ethanol car was an adventure in those days. There were only eight ethanol filling stations in Stockholm, and we planned our driving to make sure we passed one regularly. Sure, you can also tank up a Flexifuel car with ordinary petrol; that's what "Flexi" means. But the whole point was not to use fossil fuels. Biofuels were the path to a clean energy future.

Comfortable in my self-congratulatory beliefs, and shielded by my imperfect command of Swedish, it took me a couple of years to notice the growing chorus of debate in Sweden about importing Brazilian ethanol made from sugar cane. Brazil is where more than 80% of our ethanol actually comes from; most of the rest comes from Swedish grain, some comes from European wine-making by-products, and a tiny bit comes from one Swedish forestry waste facility. As though coming out of a fog, I finally realized that this Brazilian ethanol, mixed with a little home-grown agro-industry, was actually fueling my own car — not the pristine Swedish forests of my imagination.

For the next few years, I clung to the notion that our car's carbon emissions and overall environmental impact were much lower than an ordinary car. Brazilian sugar plantations, I read, did not directly impact the Amazon rainforest, the way soya farming or meat-production did. And Brazil had been producing large amounts of ethanol for decades. The economics, lifecycle analysis, and energy balance still looked pretty good. Overall, my carbon dioxide emissions were still probably 30-40% lower than petrol, some figured, even after factoring in the inputs to grow the sugar cane, and the tanker transport to Sweden.

Meanwhile, the rest of Sweden, and the world, had woken up to the wonders of biofuels. Sales of bioethanol and biodiesel was rising dramatically everywhere, driven by government policies and subsidies. George Bush plugged it in his 2007 State of the Union address. The European Commission set goals of powering the union with 10% biofuels by 2020. Here in Sweden, sales of Flexifuel cars like mine (as well as other "enviro-cars" like the Toyota Prius) were skyrocketing, thanks to a generous government rebate, free parking in some cities, and the knowledge that one could drive by the toll cameras around Stockholm and not have to pay the twenty Swedish kronor that all those "normal" cars were going to have to pay at rush hour.

On 24 February 2008, the flight of a Virgin Atlantic jumbo jet from London to Amsterdam, powered for the first time by 25% biofuel, should have been a moment of celebration, a moment when the world could say, "biofuels have arrived." Instead, it served to underscore how far, and how quickly, biofuels' stock has dropped.

Earlier this year, two important scientific studies were published that pulled the rug out from under the biofuels movement, and market. First, a Swiss government study (Zah, et al.) determined that biofuels were worse than fossil fuels in terms of total environmental impact, because cultivation of biofuels was driving the destruction of natural ecosystems for agriculture. Even my Brazilian sugarcane ethanol, according to this assessment, was directly to blame for destroying natural systems. Rising demand for ethanol generally was also causing major indirect, but even worse, destruction. For example, US farmers have been switching from soy to corn, for which they get special biofuel subsidies as well as increasingly high prices. Then Brazilian farmers cut down rainforest to meet the increased demand for Brazilian soy. I stared at the graphs for a long time, but there it was, in hard-to-deny numbers: overall, my ethanol car was hurting the environment, much more than I had previously known, and more than my neighbors' "normal" cars, on which I had been looking with such negative judgment.

Well, there is still global warming to consider, I thought. But before I could even formulate my final defense very well -- "Perhaps addressing global warming is so important that we have to accept some environmental trade-offs when using ethanol" -- a study published by the prestigious journal Science became the second nail in the coffin of my good climate conscience. It turns out that Brazilian ethanol, while not causing Amazon rainforest clearing directly, was certainly causing grassland conversion. And the destruction of Brazil's native Cerrados -- or of any other natural system -- to produce new sugar cane releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, so much so that it would take 17 years to repay the resulting "carbon debt." That is, cars using the ethanol from those sugar cane fields, instead of ordinary fossil fuels, would only start realizing a net savings on greenhouse gas emissions after those cars had been driving around for seventeen years.

I've had my ethanol for six years now. That means I only have to drive it for eleven years more before I actually start reducing my greenhouse gas emissions, compared to what they would have been if I had chosen a car with an ordinary petrol engine.

Of course, many other ecosystems are being cleared to produce biofuel crops. Compared to some of these other sources of biofuel, my Brazilian sugar cane does not look so bad. Biofuels from palm oil plantations in southeast Asia (a source of biodiesel, as well as the source for the experimental fuel in the Virgin Atlantic biofuels jet), have a 420-year payback time on their suddenly awful-looking greenhouse gas account. I doubt my environmentalist friends whose cars run on palm-oil biodiesel are sleeping well these days, either. And I doubt they will be driving those cars for 420 years.

These new scientific studies have thrown the already turbulent discussion around biofuels into genuine turmoil. Biofuels have had their critics before, and there have been other warning signs that this bright green path to carbon neutrality was not as clean as it looked. "Biofuels take food from the poor," screamed one recent Swedish headline, and many similar headlines have popped up around the world in recent years. These reflect the reality of what has happened to the energy market, as a result of the growth in biofuels; it has merged with the food market. American gas stations used to advertise "Food and Fuel." Now the question has become — when looking at a field of corn, grain, or sugar cane — food or fuel.

The issue is not merely an abstract economic argument about resource allocation; the issue affects people in daily life, and increasingly, they understand that. Protesters who were recently on the streets of Mexico City were fully aware that the diversion of America's corn crop into ethanol production was driving up the price of tortillas in their city; that was why they were on the streets. And more ominously, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization raised serious alarms at the end of 2007 about a shocking increase in food prices globally — and a sharp decline in the world's reserve stocks of food. They pointed to the growing use of food crops for biofuel production as one of several critical factors that had caused prices to jump.

"Rarely has the world felt such a widespread and commonly shared concern about food price inflation," said the FAO, "a fear which is fuelling debates about the future direction of agricultural commodity prices in importing as well as exporting countries, be they rich or poor." Once again, the world is getting a challenging lesson in systems thinking -- how everything links to everything else. Soaring petroleum prices last year, partly driven by unstable geopolitical conditions and partly by concerns that the world is witnessing the beginnings of so-called "Peak Oil," were an additional driver in the demand for biofuels. So was the world's rising concern for climate change and environmental issues generally. Increased demand for biofuels means increased demand for "sugar, maize, rapeseed, soybean, palm oil and other oilcrops as well as wheat," and the FAO expects demand to continue increasing "for many more years to come."

So by caring about climate change and purchasing ethanol for my car, I might have been — in my micro-economic but nonetheless meaningful way — increasing the economic stress of a poor family somewhere, struggling to put bread on the table, in addition to destroying Brazilian grassland and contributing to global warming.

I confess a genuine puzzlement about what to do regarding my personal energy choices these days; and my personal puzzlement is not so different from the policy puzzlement that world leaders are also starting to feel. Ordinary consumers, increasingly nudged by political and economic signals into buying green-ish cars, are about to become genuinely confused and angry when they discover that their "environmentally friendly cars" have become the target of environmental activist groups. The battle is a real one: Swedish newspapers were recently reporting our government's struggle to get the EU to put lower tariffs on ethanol imports (on which our transport sector is becoming increasingly dependent), just as European environmental groups were lobbying hard to push the EU to raise those tariffs, and to back down from its previous biofuel policy goals. Meanwhile, home-grown Swedish ethanol projects were being abandoned, because the Brazilian imports were already so cheap.

Perhaps it's not such a bad thing that biofuels have been revealed as a much-less-than-optimal energy solution, at least for fueling vehicles. Biofuels for transport have long been seen as a kind of "in-between" step, in any case, with many hoping or expecting that hydrogen fuel cells or electric cars would finally break through, with technologies that could scale up. Maybe the increasingly likely flight from biofuels for transport will accelerate the development of electric cars once and for all. Researchers tell me that electricity is the most efficient solution in pure energetic terms; why spend it on making hydrogen, for example, only to use the hydrogen to make electricity again in a fuel cell? Hence the panting for a truly world-scale conversion to "Plug-in Hybrids" that can run off the electricity grid, and almost never need their reserve combustion motors. I keep waiting for these to come to market, but they always seem to be five-to-ten years away.

Eventually we'll get there, of course ... but that lust for Plug-ins will mean a large increase in demand for electricity, as well. Biofuels are hardly the answer there, at least not at current levels of consumption. No wonder nuclear power is starting to look more attractive again to nations like Finland (currently building a new plant) and the UK (which recently ordered four new nuclear power stations from the French). Sure, nuclear waste is a tremendous problem, one that will be around for thousands of years to come. Sure, nuclear accidents can lay whole regions to waste for millenia, as in Chernobyl. Sure, the mining, refining and shipping of uranium means that it's not really a carbon-free technology. And sure, some nuclear plants are finding it hard to keep running, because the rivers they use to cool their reactors are getting too warm during the increasingly hotter summer months.

But at least these are problems we know about, whereas biofuels are suddenly looking like a jack-in-the-box of unpleasant surprises, ranging from higher food prices to ecosystem destruction to an actual worsening of the greenhouse gas emissions problem. I have been staunchly anti-nuclear for all of my adult life; but even I am beginning to scratch my head and wonder whether shutting down Sweden's nuclear power plants -- which the country originally committed to doing by 2010 -- is such a good idea just now.

These days, my wife and I are researching the electric car options, of course. A car with batteries loaded from our home sockets in Stockholm would theoretically be driven by wind power: we pay a premium to have certified green electricity at home. An electric car would be 100% climate-friendly. But the choice of vehicles is still sadly limited; for some reason, there are better electric car options in Norway, a country that has gotten famously rich selling fossil fuels. And of course, the electrons coming through our wires actually come from a mixture of nuclear power (about half), hydropower, and several other much-smaller sources, including a bit of oil and coal. The actual wind power in the electricity grid here in Sweden is less than one-third of one percent. Biofuels -- which are increasingly our main source of heat in the winter -- also account for ten times the electricity of Swedish windmills. I may like to think we use windpower, and the market may like to pretend that it's selling me windpower; but in reality, an electric car here would be a nuclear-hydropower "hybrid." Still not so bad from a climate perspective; but not exactly a perfect solution either. And I never want to catch myself being duped by wishful thinking again.

Maybe the only real solution to my growing sense of unintentional hypocrisy (I've gone from feeling like a climate hero to eco-criminal, overnight) is to just get rid of the car. I read in the 28 February edition of Newsweek that car sales dropped nearly 7% last year in Japan, and that people are talking about a "post-car society." "Having a car," said a young and trendy internet executive quoted for the article, "is so 20th century."

Ethanol was meant to be a 21st century solution. But these days it, too, seems to be very 20th century as well.

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Comments

I take two things from this fascinating report:

(1) Optimism, as much as pessimism, can lead to more harm than good. Good intentions are not enough.

(2) We're aren't facing a re-engineering of the means to power our lifestyle; we are (as has always been claimed by the "old-school" environmentalists) facing a re-engineering of our lifestyle.


Posted by: Gyrus on 29 Feb 08

Hi interesting piece. There seems to be a pattern about trying to find a soft option such as biofuels, hybrids, fuel cells. These are presented as easier options as they are closer to what we are already using. But usually don't look as good when the full energy equation is calculated for process, manufacture and disposal. I think in the end we will have to bite the bullet and use as energy sources as close to the source (the sun) as possible i.e. wind, thermal solar, wave and current. I suspect the easiest energy medium will be compressed air due to availability, cost and cleanness. Also because of its relatively quick recharge and no limited cycles as with a battery.


Posted by: Ed on 29 Feb 08

Dear Mr. Atkinson,
I see no reason for crisis in your global warming conscience by using ethanol-fueled car. It seems that you are basing your opinion in an abundance of speculation that ignores concrete data about biofuels. Pay atention to some key facts about Brazilian ethanol (everyone could check it by visiting Brazil like a comission of Europeans lawmakers did recently):

In the three decades since ethanol has been used as a gasoline substitute (or mixed with it), Brazil avoided emissions of 600 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere, the main contributor to global warming;

Ethanol means reductions of more than 60 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions from gasoline;

Sugarcane, with 500 years of history in Brazil, has for the past three decades provided energy-efficient ethanol, and, more recently, electricity from the biomass of cane pulp. Production today costs just 30 percent of what it did when the gasoline substitution program began in 1975.

Growth in productivity was spectacular, and with the new hydrolysis technology, which will make use of the sugarcane leaves and other parts of the plant that make up two-thirds of its biomass, output could be twice the current production of 7,000 liters per hectare;

The charge that expansion of sugarcane threatens the Amazon makes no sense because sugarcane does not adapt to the humid climate of the jungle, but rather needs the climate found in the region of Sao Paulo state, the leading producer.

The fact that some sugar mills and distilleries exist in the Amazon does not indicated a trend, and such activity will not prosper because sugarcane yields there are very low there compared to other regions.

Nor is it inevitable that sugarcane will take land away from food production or push other agricultural mainstays like soy and livestock to encroach on the Amazon. If livestock were productive and less extensive, "it would free up 50 million hectares for agriculture (in Brazil) ...and we would not need more than 15 million hectares for all the production and export" possible of ethanol in this country, he said.

Fuel alcohol already supplies 30 percent of the demand of vehicles in Brazil, and occupies just four million hectares for its production, or about five percent of the land used for agriculture.

The world could use ethanol or biodiesel to substitute 15 to 20 percent of the petroleum it uses. To do so would not require major modifications to existing vehicle engines. No changes are needed to add up to five percent ethanol to gasoline. Brazil already mixes 25 percent in some engine adaptations, and developed a technology for cars to use fuel mixtures of any proportion.


Posted by: Almir on 1 Mar 08

Some key facts about Brazilian :

In the three decades since ethanol has been used as a gasoline substitute (or mixed with it), Brazil avoided emissions of 600 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere, the main contributor to global warming;
Ethanol means reductions of more than 60 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions from gasoline;
Sugarcane, with 500 years of history in Brazil, has for the past three decades provided energy-efficient ethanol, and, more recently, electricity from the biomass of cane pulp. Production today costs just 30 percent of what it did when the gasoline substitution program began in 1975.
Growth in productivity was spectacular, and with the new hydrolysis technology, which will make use of the sugarcane leaves and other parts of the plant that make up two-thirds of its biomass, output could be twice the current production of 7,000 liters per hectare;

The charge that expansion of sugarcane threatens the Amazon makes no sense because sugarcane does not adapt to the humid climate of the jungle, but rather needs the climate found in the region of Sao Paulo state, the leading producer.

The fact that some sugar mills and distilleries exist in the Amazon does not indicated a trend, and such activity will not prosper because sugarcane yields there are very low there compared to other regions.

Nor is it inevitable that sugarcane will take land away from food production or push other agricultural mainstays like soy and livestock to encroach on the Amazon. If livestock were productive and less extensive, "it would free up 50 million hectares for agriculture (in Brazil) ...and we would not need more than 15 million hectares for all the production and export" possible of ethanol in this country, he said.

Fuel alcohol already supplies 30 percent of the demand of vehicles in Brazil, and occupies just four million hectares for its production, or about five percent of the land used for agriculture.

The world could use ethanol or biodiesel to substitute 15 to 20 percent of the petroleum it uses. To do so would not require major modifications to existing vehicle engines. No changes are needed to add up to five percent ethanol to gasoline. Brazil already mixes 25 percent in some engine adaptations, and developed a technology for cars to use fuel mixtures of any proportion.


Posted by: Almir on 1 Mar 08

This piece is poorly written. "Biofuels" lumps gasoline and diesel together. Gasoline made from ethanol IS stupid. Why use a gallon of petroleum to generate a little more ethanol (which has a lower BTU rating, by the way)? Stupid.

Biodiesel is a different story. First of all, there's more than just palm oil to use as a source. Palm oil IS stupid, and should be avoided. But soy oil is the BY PRODUCT of soy bean production. The bean paste is still used as a high quality protein. The oil is a great resource to use for biodiesel. And that's just a start. There is all the animal by product to meat production (yep, the stuff that's left over), used cooking oil (let's use it!), non-food crops like jatropha (which we could grow between our interstate highways), and algae (a great way to clean up the co2 emissions at electricity plants by using the co2 they generate to grow algae quickly and repeatedly).

Biofuels are NOT all alike! Petroleum won't last forever. It makes you wonder who sponsered this article, doesn't it?

Mark Meachen


Posted by: Mark Meachen on 3 Mar 08

I think that bio fuels are a great idea and a good solution to running out of other fuels (not really a problem right now),

the problem is that people are trying to use it to sustain the madness of a daily commute.

small villages are a good solution to make it unnecessary to move so many people from one place to another.

I see this problem caused by long term loans on houses, it has driven up the price of homes, and that means that if you manage to buy a house, you do not move for a job, and thus commute to distant locations and wasting huge amounts of fuel.

no one is really interested in solving the problem or you would see laws that prohibit people from working outside the city that they live in, and things like that happening.

closing all the freeways to everyone except commercial trucking would go a long way as well.

it all comes down to the best solution of "lifestyle change"

but lifestyle change is really hard for most people in an emotional way, and usually blocked by laws and economic conditions.

I would love to do subsistence farming for a living, but property taxes make sure that I can't do it.

trying to sustain the madness is the real problem, and people will try as hard as they can to make sure that no big changes happen, bio fuels are just one example of this.


Posted by: adam on 3 Mar 08

Before you run out and buy an electric car, you should consider that they may not be as green as advertised. While the "Hummer is greener than the Prius" argument may have been debunked (see: http://www.pacinst.org/topics/integrity_of_science/case_studies/hummer_vs_prius.pdf), the fact is that the carbon emissions of a car's engine are only a fraction in the overall equation. While we presently lack the comprehensive cradle-to-grave analysis of most products' production, it is sadly true that the "new best thing" may not be in the final analysis (witness your own about-face on the biofuel car).

When you consider that some studies estimate that half a car's carbon emissions come from its production and ultimate recycling, merely buying a smaller more fuel-efficient car, and keeping it on the road longer may be a better short term solution. Even the lowly Rabbit Diesel (the old one) gets better mileage then many of the hybrid options today. And this is a compelling argument to simply keep an older car on the road.

The truth is, there is *no* solution that allows everyone to have a car and drive wherever they want, whenever they want. The Western world is over-consuming by at least an order of magnitude in virtually every area of life, and a radical lifestyle shift is ultimately the only solution. Drive down any residential street, and look at all the parked cars, and realize that every car sitting idle is wasted production, and wasted system capacity, and more carbon in the air.

I'm no saint, I'm not being critical of everyone's desire to find a better solution, but I think our efforts would be better directed at large-scale change -- e.g. mass-transit, and a return to neighborhood living (walking to school, the store, and work) -- would have a far greater impact than any hybrid car. The fallacy of the hybrid car is that "technology will fix it" - I can keep doing what I'm doing, but with new technology, and everything will be ok.

Zipcar and its alternatives have demonstrated that 1) we can share cars and consume less resources; and perhaps more importantly 2) dramatically raising the cost of driving is the most effective way to reduce how many miles people drive (Zipcar claims that most users reduce their mileage by a factor of 10).


Posted by: Neil Verplank on 4 Mar 08

Alan, take heart.

Read the piece on this very website (3/3/08):

Growing Sustainable Biofuels: Common Sense on Biofuels

All is not lost. Biofuels can be sustainable. The "land use" piece does not even state that today's biofuels have worsened global warming, just that it might by 2016 if corn ethanol exceeds the U.S. Federal cap on corn ethanol by double.

Our transportation future will be built on conservation, efficiency, electric drive and, yes, some liquid fuels from biomass. We must start somewhere. I commend you for having the foresight to begin while many others continue to use the least sustainable of all fuels, petroleum. I personally use biodiesel. I am not worried that my early advocacy of biofuels has been a "bad thing". We must start the change. And... we must take care about how we do it.

We can not simply sigh with relief and go back to using petroleum. Petroleum runs out. Along the way it causes pollution, economic upheaval, wars and... global warming. We must get off of petroleum. There isn't a choice. The only choice is when and how.

Thanks for your choice to look for personal solutions. It is not as dire as you think.


Posted by: Marc Franke on 5 Mar 08

i live in the brazilian state of minas gerais, where sugar cane for ethanol has grown like a wild beast over the last few years, and i´ve actually worked in some studies of environmental impact for some ethanol plants around here a couple of years ago. in my view, there are three major negative impacts: the indirect pressure on the arc of deforestation in the southern tip of the rain forest, due to rising land values (sugar cane pushes food production up to the northwest where land is a lot cheaper); as you´ve said, the degradation of the cerrado ecosystem (responsible for almost all the non-amazonian water supply we have in central-southern brazil), which is very violent and has been happening for a few decades already; and from a "socio-environmental" standpoint, there is a labour issue here. although newer plants are increasingly using machines, we´re talking about some 19th century working conditions in these areas, with underpaid temporary labor (reaching peaks during 3 months of the year and then leaving a considerable amount of people roaming for other temporary jobs), which although it´s all pefectly legal (our worker´s party in power is just the usual disappointment labour practising neoliberalism), it´s not exactly socially responsible...

i really like your conclusion, the problem is the car itself, it transformed major cities all over the world (can you imagine getting most north american cities apart from nyc, montreal and san francisco not rid of their cars, but rid of the absolute need to use a car for just anything!) in a way that increases socio-spatial fragmentation and diminishes the importance of public space, which becomes the space of conflict, instead of the space of the possible encounters...


Posted by: Felipe Magalhães on 8 Mar 08



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