Alternative ‘green’ fuels create more ethical questions

“Corn causes more soil erosion than any other crop grown in the United States…Producing ethanol or biodiesel from plant biomass is going down the wrong road because you use more energy to produce these fuels than you get out from the combustion of these products.” David Pimentel, agricultural scientist at Cornell University

“Political leaders stress the importance of technological innovation as a primary means of eventually reducing carbon emissions. This is wishful thinking on an extraordinary scale.” Chris Goodall, “How to lead a low-carbon life”

Rudolf Diesel’s engine ran off peanut oil at the Paris World Fair in 1900. Fuels derived from plants, their seeds and even from algae have caught the imagination of researchers for over 100 years.  Sometimes, fuel made from corn, sugar cane or soy is called agrofuels. These fuels have been the forage for intense debates between industry hopefuls who obtain their money from oil companies such as BP, venture capitalists as well as governments who are, in many instances, pitted against conservationists. In 2010 the controversy over ‘renewable’ type fuels is more complicated than ever. It’s not just the low energy return on the energy invested in producing the fuels that have created the conflagration. The controversy has spread to the acknowledgement of biodiversity loss where these plants are grown, to even the car and marine industries who say that a higher blend (going from 10 to 15 per cent) of ethanol will ruin engines.
Now a whole array of African, Chinese, Indonesian and Indian groups oppose increasing the acreage of these crops. In Africa non-government organizations and scientists are warning that mono-crops such as palm oil and what was once called the ‘wonder weed’ because it can grow on marginal lands, jatropha, will have disastrous consequences if corporations gain control of farm land. Food security, displaced farmers, deforestation, and conservation lands are all threatened in the wake of the agro fuel ‘miracle’. In places such as Ethiopia’s Babile Elephant Sanctuary where 300 elephants and 1,000 black manned lions live and are revered by people, a German biodiesel company has leveled huge tracts of conservation land. In fact, the European Union is being pressured to lower its biofuel targets as a result of similar tragic examples including Uganda’s Mabira Forest that is a water catchment area for the Nile and Lake Victoria. In Indonesia the destruction of the orangutans’ last remaining habitat and the gargantuan levels of greenhouse gas emissions coming with forest destruction and burning, has brought huge criticism for the profligate misuse of lands to grow these fuels. Ecological services are not respected by some corporations because many times they are ‘given’ out for free and are then over-exploited.  To the contrary, it is estimated that in India up to 57 percent of the ‘wealth’ of the poor can be attributed to these same ‘free’ open access services and are often cared for.
As more questions come up regarding the viability of biofuels including cellulosic ethanol (fuel produced from grasses, agricultural residue and municipal waste), many companies are investing in algae as the perceived panacea to wean us away from fossil fuels. ExxonMobil, Chevron, Bill Gates’ Cascade investments and Dow Chemical are investing more than a billion dollars in taking algae from the laboratory and into the field. Algae’s photosynthetic cells produce oils and ethanol and can be far more efficient than corn on a per hectare basis.  There is even what is called “green gasoline” made from the woody remains of plants that is similar to fossil fuels in their composition.
It is no secret that these biofuels will never be able to replace the vast volume of fossil fuels if we have more consumption and a larger population.  Furthermore, all the alternative fuel hype has not translated into ethical ways to lower our carbon footprints. The technological silver bullet for our troubles hasn’t materialized. It’s time that we rethink what each of us can do to move past the consumption bottleneck that has created the demand for more fossil fuels to begin with.

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