Monday, December 5, 2005

Guardian Unlimited | Guardian daily comment | The most destructive crop on earth is no solution to the energy crisis

There's a pattern we often fall into. When we humans go to solve a problem, we often create other problems in its wake.

A problem we humans are facing today is what to do about oil. There's no doubt that oil has made for a great big expansion of what human society can do in the world. Compare in your mind life before oil made it big, say in the 1800's, and life as we live it today. It was oil that made all that happen, the technology simply came along for the ride using the energy we derived from oil to make the technology possible. Leonardo DaVinci is testament to mans inventiveness, and if he had the energy resources we have today he would have been among the ranks of Tesla, Edison and the like.

The most destructive crop on earth is no solution to the energy crisis

By promoting biodiesel as a substitute, we have missed the fact that it is worse than the fossil-fuel burning it replaces (George Monbiot, Tuesday December 6, 2005, The Guardian)

He has a bothersome thing to say about the move to biodiesel. Namely that the oil issue is probably too big for biodiesel to solve, and that the current moves to implement biodiesel production are themselves wreaking ecological havoc.

Let's consider this sobering thought:

In 2003, the biologist Jeffrey Dukes calculated that the fossil fuels we burn in one year were made from organic matter "containing 44 x 1018 grams of carbon, which is more than 400 times the net primary productivity of the planet's current biota". In plain English, this means that every year we use four centuries' worth of plants and animals.

If we switched all current use of oil to some kind of biodiesel it would mean, as he says, processing four centuries worth of plants and animals every year.

er... whoops? So, uh, hmm.. er.. ah...

That really leaves me scratching my head over how "we" are going to make up the gap. Fortunately we don't have to make up the gap today, because there's still oil and natural gas and coal as existing fossil fuels. But it sure raises the issue of developing alternatives other than biodiesel.

Perhaps the cleanest way of producing biodiesel is some kind of microbe that's been genetically engineered to be a really good at oil production. You'd just have vats of these microbes, and you harvest whole vats at a time, and process them for their constituents. Hopefully those microbes would not be ones who could cause diseases, because it'd be a real bummer to create a worldwide epidemic just so we could grow some oil.

But ... it's a real stumper how we are going to have factories that grow enough microbes every year to equate to 400 years worth of plants and animals.

Anyway, let's get back to the article for another disturbing thought:

"The demand for biodiesel," the Malaysian Star reports, "will come from the European Community ... This fresh demand ... would, at the very least, take up most of Malaysia's crude palm oil inventories." Why? Because it is cheaper than biodiesel made from any other crop.

In September, Friends of the Earth published a report about the impact of palm oil production. "Between 1985 and 2000," it found, "the development of oil-palm plantations was responsible for an estimated 87 per cent of deforestation in Malaysia". In Sumatra and Borneo, some 4 million hectares of forest have been converted to palm farms. Now a further 6 million hectares are scheduled for clearance in Malaysia, and 16.5 million in Indonesia.

Almost all the remaining forest is at risk. Even the famous Tanjung Puting national park in Kalimantan is being ripped apart by oil planters. The orangutan is likely to become extinct in the wild. Sumatran rhinos, tigers, gibbons, tapirs, proboscis monkeys and thousands of other species could go the same way. Thousands of indigenous people have been evicted from their lands, and some 500 Indonesians have been tortured when they tried to resist. The forest fires which every so often smother the region in smog are mostly started by the palm growers. The entire region is being turned into a gigantic vegetable oil field.

Certainly the vision of biofuels is to reuse existing waste material such as fryer grease, or perhaps agricultural waste. But that's not what is happening.

A large number of biodiesel refineries are being built as he describes in the article. I guess there isn't enough leftover fryer grease to feed those refineries, so they're turning to farmers to grow oil-rich crops. There's an existing industry of farmers growing oil-rich crops to create different vegetable oils, usually for cooking. So it's perhaps understandable to see how the need for vegetable oil would cause growth in the number of these farmers.

So, here we have it ... the need to wean the world from fossil oil ... leads to further environmental degradation ... yet the people who are pushing for biofuels are probably environmentally minded and would hate to learn of such vast deforestation.

It's like squeezing a balloon, isn't it?