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Ethanol: A 20th Century Solution

This article was written by Alan AtKisson in February 2008. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

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.

Biofuels: Driving in the Wrong Direction? is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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Comments

I agree, using Brazilian ethanol is a big mistake; they are destroying the last of the world's rainforest to make it.

Making ethanol from corn in the US is not causing the high price of food - we still have a large surplus of corn produced in the US that proves we are not causing any shortages. Corn too absorbs carbon dioxide from the air, much more so than soy beans. Also, US ethanol will soon be produced from biomass other than food crops as well as corn.

And no where in your article did I see a discussion and analysis of the greenhouse gases released during the production of gasoline, or the amount of fresh water consumed, which is huge.

Also, do you know that it takes electricity to charge those batteries in electric cars - where do you think the electricity comes from? While on the subject of electric cars, look at the physics of electric motors. The commutators in all electric motors produce a byproduct called ozone. That's right, electric motors are a direct producer of ozone! Imagine all those electric motors spewing out ozone on the roads!

I like the carless society idea the best - but that will not happen in the forseeable future in the US, or China, or Indiana.......maybe in big cities or Europe that could happen.

I think you are way too hard on yourself for owning a flex fuel car! It's impossible for us to live in a carbon-free society. In fact, one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gases in the US is cow "exhaust gases," otherwise known as methane. And what about people? We emit carbon dioxide everytime we expel breath, and the world's population doubles about every 50 years. And think about all the food we will need in 50 years, and all the machinery needed to grow and harvest and process and transport that food. Your carbon footprint by using ethanol is not so big after all.

Finally, in the US, we are more concerned about getting out from under the stanglehold of oil producing countries, especially the middle east where constant warfare is needed to keep the oil flowing. One day the oil won't flow to us from there any more. And we love our cars - we need oil. Our country is too large and diverse for us to be without our mobile units of transportation. We are now sending so much money to other countries for oil that it sickens me. We are making our enemies rich by doing so, and they hate us even though we do make them rich. They flaunt it at us by buying up our own resources and infrastructure.

But in the end, we need cars, and we need oil, and alternate forms of fuel will not totally replace oil. For after all, we still need lots of oil in our crankcases and gear boxes!


Posted by: ken on 30 Sep 08

I agree, using Brazilian ethanol is a big mistake; they are destroying the last of the world's rainforest to make it.

Making ethanol from corn in the US is not causing the high price of food - we still have a large surplus of corn produced in the US that proves we are not causing any shortages. Corn too absorbs carbon dioxide from the air, much more so than soy beans. Also, US ethanol will soon be produced from biomass other than food crops as well as corn.

And no where in your article did I see a discussion and analysis of the greenhouse gases released during the production of gasoline, or the amount of fresh water consumed, which is huge.

Also, do you know that it takes electricity to charge those batteries in electric cars - where do you think the electricity comes from? While on the subject of electric cars, look at the physics of electric motors. The commutators in all electric motors produce a byproduct called ozone. That's right, electric motors are a direct producer of ozone! Imagine all those electric motors spewing out ozone on the roads!

I like the carless society idea the best - but that will not happen in the forseeable future in the US, or China, or Indiana.......maybe in big cities or Europe that could happen.

I think you are way too hard on yourself for owning a flex fuel car! It's impossible for us to live in a carbon-free society. In fact, one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gases in the US is cow "exhaust gases," otherwise known as methane. And what about people? We emit carbon dioxide everytime we expel breath, and the world's population doubles about every 50 years. And think about all the food we will need in 50 years, and all the machinery needed to grow and harvest and process and transport that food. Your carbon footprint by using ethanol is not so big after all.

Finally, in the US, we are more concerned about getting out from under the stanglehold of oil producing countries, especially the middle east where constant warfare is needed to keep the oil flowing. One day the oil won't flow to us from there any more. And we love our cars - we need oil. Our country is too large and diverse for us to be without our mobile units of transportation. We are now sending so much money to other countries for oil that it sickens me. We are making our enemies rich by doing so, and they hate us even though we do make them rich. They flaunt it at us by buying up our own resources and infrastructure.

But in the end, we need cars, and we need oil, and alternate forms of fuel will not totally replace oil. For after all, we still need lots of oil in our crankcases and gear boxes!


Posted by: ken on 30 Sep 08

I agree, using Brazilian ethanol is a big mistake; they are destroying the last of the world's rainforest to make it.

Making ethanol from corn in the US is not causing the high price of food - we still have a large surplus of corn produced in the US that proves we are not causing any shortages. Corn too absorbs carbon dioxide from the air, much more so than soy beans. Also, US ethanol will soon be produced from biomass other than food crops as well as corn.

And no where in your article did I see a discussion and analysis of the greenhouse gases released during the production of gasoline, or the amount of fresh water consumed, which is huge.

Also, do you know that it takes electricity to charge those batteries in electric cars - where do you think the electricity comes from? While on the subject of electric cars, look at the physics of electric motors. The commutators in all electric motors produce a byproduct called ozone. That's right, electric motors are a direct producer of ozone! Imagine all those electric motors spewing out ozone on the roads!

I like the carless society idea the best - but that will not happen in the forseeable future in the US, or China, or Indiana.......maybe in big cities or Europe that could happen.

I think you are way too hard on yourself for owning a flex fuel car! It's impossible for us to live in a carbon-free society. In fact, one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gases in the US is cow "exhaust gases," otherwise known as methane. And what about people? We emit carbon dioxide everytime we expel breath, and the world's population doubles about every 50 years. And think about all the food we will need in 50 years, and all the machinery needed to grow and harvest and process and transport that food. Your carbon footprint by using ethanol is not so big after all.

Finally, in the US, we are more concerned about getting out from under the stanglehold of oil producing countries, especially the middle east where constant warfare is needed to keep the oil flowing. One day the oil won't flow to us from there any more. And we love our cars - we need oil. Our country is too large and diverse for us to be without our mobile units of transportation. We are now sending so much money to other countries for oil that it sickens me. We are making our enemies rich by doing so, and they hate us even though we do make them rich. They flaunt it at us by buying up our own resources and infrastructure.

But in the end, we need cars, and we need oil, and alternate forms of fuel will not totally replace oil. For after all, we still need lots of oil in our crankcases and gear boxes!


Posted by: ken bosar on 30 Sep 08

I agree, using Brazilian ethanol is a big mistake; they are destroying the last of the world's rainforest to make it.

Making ethanol from corn in the US is not causing the high price of food - we still have a large surplus of corn produced in the US that proves we are not causing any shortages. Corn too absorbs carbon dioxide from the air, much more so than soy beans. Also, US ethanol will soon be produced from biomass other than food crops as well as corn.

And no where in your article did I see a discussion and analysis of the greenhouse gases released during the production of gasoline, or the amount of fresh water consumed, which is huge.

Also, do you know that it takes electricity to charge those batteries in electric cars - where do you think the electricity comes from? While on the subject of electric cars, look at the physics of electric motors. The commutators in all electric motors produce a byproduct called ozone. That's right, electric motors are a direct producer of ozone! Imagine all those electric motors spewing out ozone on the roads!

I like the carless society idea the best - but that will not happen in the forseeable future in the US, or China, or Indiana.......maybe in big cities or Europe that could happen.

I think you are way too hard on yourself for owning a flex fuel car! It's impossible for us to live in a carbon-free society. In fact, one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gases in the US is cow "exhaust gases," otherwise known as methane. And what about people? We emit carbon dioxide everytime we expel breath, and the world's population doubles about every 50 years. And think about all the food we will need in 50 years, and all the machinery needed to grow and harvest and process and transport that food. Your carbon footprint by using ethanol is not so big after all.

Finally, in the US, we are more concerned about getting out from under the stanglehold of oil producing countries, especially the middle east where constant warfare is needed to keep the oil flowing. One day the oil won't flow to us from there any more. And we love our cars - we need oil. Our country is too large and diverse for us to be without our mobile units of transportation. We are now sending so much money to other countries for oil that it sickens me. We are making our enemies rich by doing so, and they hate us even though we do make them rich. They flaunt it at us by buying up our own resources and infrastructure.

But in the end, we need cars, and we need oil, and alternate forms of fuel will not totally replace oil. For after all, we still need lots of oil in our crankcases and gear boxes!


Posted by: ken bosar on 30 Sep 08

I agree, using Brazilian ethanol is a big mistake; they are destroying the last of the world's rainforest to make it.

Making ethanol from corn in the US is not causing the high price of food - we still have a large surplus of corn produced in the US that proves we are not causing any shortages. Corn too absorbs carbon dioxide from the air, much more so than soy beans. Also, US ethanol will soon be produced from biomass other than food crops as well as corn.

And no where in your article did I see a discussion and analysis of the greenhouse gases released during the production of gasoline, or the amount of fresh water consumed, which is huge.

Also, do you know that it takes electricity to charge those batteries in electric cars - where do you think the electricity comes from? While on the subject of electric cars, look at the physics of electric motors. The commutators in all electric motors produce a byproduct called ozone. That's right, electric motors are a direct producer of ozone! Imagine all those electric motors spewing out ozone on the roads!

I like the carless society idea the best - but that will not happen in the forseeable future in the US, or China, or Indiana.......maybe in big cities or Europe that could happen.

I think you are way too hard on yourself for owning a flex fuel car! It's impossible for us to live in a carbon-free society. In fact, one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gases in the US is cow "exhaust gases," otherwise known as methane. And what about people? We emit carbon dioxide everytime we expel breath, and the world's population doubles about every 50 years. And think about all the food we will need in 50 years, and all the machinery needed to grow and harvest and process and transport that food. Your carbon footprint by using ethanol is not so big after all.

Finally, in the US, we are more concerned about getting out from under the stanglehold of oil producing countries, especially the middle east where constant warfare is needed to keep the oil flowing. One day the oil won't flow to us from there any more. And we love our cars - we need oil. Our country is too large and diverse for us to be without our mobile units of transportation. We are now sending so much money to other countries for oil that it sickens me. We are making our enemies rich by doing so, and they hate us even though we do make them rich. They flaunt it at us by buying up our own resources and infrastructure.

But in the end, we need cars, and we need oil, and alternate forms of fuel will not totally replace oil. For after all, we still need lots of oil in our crankcases and gear boxes!


Posted by: ken bosar on 30 Sep 08

It's fairly certain that corn ethanol IS pushing up food prices (30 to 60 percent) according to a Sept 2008 newsletter from the Union of Concerned Scientists. A report from the world bank ("A Note on Rising Food Prices" by Donald Mitchell) confirmed this too.

It's also true that the high price of corn is forcing the third world to cut down tropical forests. See "the documantary, "Ethanol Lie" on youtube:
Ethanol Lie
So, corn ethanol is INCREASING GLOBAL WARMING.


Posted by: Ed German on 30 Sep 08



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