Skip to comments.Worse Than Fossil Fuel
Posted on 03/22/2006 10:02:14 AM PST by Jack of all Trades
Biodiesel enthusiasts have accidentally invented the most carbon-intensive fuel on earth
By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 6th December 2005
Over the past two years I have made an uncomfortable discovery. Like most environmentalists, I have been as blind to the constraints affecting our energy supply as my opponents have been to climate change. I now realise that I have entertained a belief in magic.
In 2003, the biologist Jeffrey Dukes calculated that the fossil fuels we burn in one year were made from organic matter “containing 44×10 to the 18 grams of carbon, which is more than 400 times the net primary productivity of the planet’s current biota.”(1) In plain English, this means that every year we use four centuries’ worth of plants and animals.
The idea that we can simply replace this fossil legacy – and the extraordinary power densities it gives us – with ambient energy is the stuff of science fiction. There is simply no substitute for cutting back. But substitutes are being sought everywhere. They are being promoted today at the climate talks in Montreal, by states – such as ours – which seek to avoid the hard decisions climate change demands. And at least one of them is worse than the fossil fuel burning it replaces.
The last time I drew attention to the hazards of making diesel fuel from vegetable oils, I received as much abuse as I have ever been sent by the supporters of the Iraq war. The biodiesel missionaries, I discovered, are as vociferous in their denial as the executives of Exxon. I am now prepared to admit that my previous column was wrong. But they’re not going to like it. I was wrong because I underestimated the fuel’s destructive impact.
Before I go any further, I should make it clear that turning used chip fat into motor fuel is a good thing. The people slithering around all day in vats of filth are perfoming a service to society. But there is enough waste cooking oil in the UK to meet one 380th of our demand for road transport fuel(2). Beyond that, the trouble begins.
When I wrote about it last year, I thought that the biggest problem caused by biodiesel was that it set up a competition for land(3). Arable land that would otherwise have been used to grow food would instead be used to grow fuel. But now I find that something even worse is happening. The biodiesel industry has accidentally invented the world’s most carbon-intensive fuel.
In promoting biodiesel – as the European Union, the British and US governments and thousands of environmental campaigners do – you might imagine that you are creating a market for old chip fat, or rapeseed oil, or oil from algae grown in desert ponds. In reality you are creating a market for the most destructive crop on earth.
Last week, the chairman of Malaysia’s Federal Land Development Authority announced that he was about to build a new biodiesel plant(4). His was the ninth such decision in four months. Four new refineries are being built in Peninsula Malaysia, one in Sarawak and two in Rotterdam(5). Two foreign consortia – one German, one American – are setting up rival plants in Singapore(6). All of them will be making biodiesel from the same source: oil from palm trees.
“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”(7). Why? Because it’s cheaper than biodiesel made from any other crop.
In September, Friends of the Earth published a report about the impacts 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”(8). In Sumatra and Borneo, some 4 million hectares of forest has been converted to palm farms. Now a further 6 million hectares is scheduled for clearance in Malaysia, and 16.5m 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 orang-utan 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(9). 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.
Before oil palms, which are small and scrubby, are planted, vast forest trees, containing a much greater store of carbon, must be felled and burnt. Having used up the drier lands, the plantations are now moving into the swamp forests, which grow on peat. When they’ve cut the trees, the planters drain the ground. As the peat dries it oxidises, releasing even more carbon dioxide than the trees. In terms of its impact on both the local and global environments, palm biodiesel is more destructive than crude oil from Nigeria.
The British government understands this. In the report it published last month, when it announced that it will obey the European Union and ensure that 5.75% of our transport fuel comes from plants by 2010, it admitted that “the main environmental risks are likely to be those concerning any large expansion in biofuel feedstock production, and particularly in Brazil (for sugar cane) and South East Asia (for palm oil plantations).”(10) It suggested that the best means of dealing with the problem was to prevent environmentally destructive fuels from being imported. The government asked its consultants whether a ban would infringe world trade rules. The answer was yes: “mandatory environmental criteria … would greatly increase the risk of international legal challenge to the policy as a whole”(11). So it dropped the idea of banning imports, and called for “some form of voluntary scheme” instead(12). Knowing that the creation of this market will lead to a massive surge in imports of palm oil, knowing that there is nothing meaningful it can do to prevent them, and knowing that they will accelarate rather than ameliorate climate change, the government has decided to go ahead anyway.
At other times it happily defies the European Union. But what the EU wants and what the government wants are the same. “It is essential that we balance the increasing demand for travel,” the government’s report says, “with our goals for protecting the environment”(13). Until recently, we had a policy of reducing the demand for travel. Now, though no announcement has been made, that policy has gone. Like the Tories in the early 1990s, the Labour administration seeks to accommodate demand, however high it rises. Figures obtained last week by the campaigning group Road Block show that for the widening of the M1 alone the government will pay £3.6 billion – more than it is spending on its entire climate change programme(14). Instead of attempting to reduce demand, it is trying to alter supply. It is prepared to sacrifice the South East Asian rainforests in order to be seen to do something, and to allow motorists to feel better about themselves.
All this illustrates the futility of the technofixes now being pursued in Montreal. Trying to meet a rising demand for fuel is madness, wherever the fuel might come from. The hard decisions have been avoided, and another portion of the biosphere is going up in smoke.
1. Jeffrey S. Dukes, 2003. Burning Buried Sunshine: Human Consumption Of
Ancient Solar Energy. Climatic Change 61: 31-44.
2. The British Association for Biofuels and Oils estimates the volume at 100,000 tonnes a year. BABFO, no date. Memorandum to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. http://www.biodiesel.co.uk/press_release/royal_commission_on_environmenta.htm
4. Tamimi Omar, 1st December 2005. Felda to set up largest biodiesel plant. The Edge Daily.
5. See e.g. Zaidi Isham Ismail, 7th November 2005. IOI to go it alone on first biodiesel plant.
http://www.btimes.com.my/Current_News/BT/Monday/Frontpage/20051107000223/Article/; No author, 25th November 2005. GHope nine-month profit hits RM841mil. http://biz.thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2005/11/25/business/12693859&sec=business; No author, 26th November 2005. GHope to invest RM40mil for biodiesel plant in Netherlands. http://biz.thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2005/11/26/business/12704187&sec=business; No author, 23rd November 2005. Malaysia IOI Eyes Green Energy Expansion in Europe. http://www.planetark.com/dailynewsstory.cfm/newsid/33622/story.htm
6. Loh Kim Chin, 26th October 2005. Singapore to host two biodiesel plants, investments total over S$80m. Channel NewsAsia.
7. C.S. Tan, 6th October 2005. All Plantation Stocks Rally. http://biz.thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2005/10/6/business/12243819&sec=business
8. Friends of the Earth et al, September 2005. The Oil for Ape Scandal: how palm oil is threatening orang-utan survival. Research report. www.foe.co.uk/resource/reports/oil_for_ape_full.pdf
10. Department for Transport, November 2005. Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) feasibility report.
11. E4Tech, ECCM and Imperial College, London, June 2005. Feasibility Study on Certification for a Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation. Final Report.
12. Department for Transport, ibid.
I found this during my regular lunch-time tinfoil hat cruise around the web. Not vouching for the content or the author who looks to be a run of the mill eco-liberal.
Moonbiot? Is that French for Moonbat?
At first I thought this was nuts. But then I read it, and I agree with it. Small-scale biodiesel makes sense. But cutting down forests to plant palm trees, or planting huge spreads of corn or soybeans to be converted into fuel, just doesn't makes sense.
Carbon dioxide emissions aren't that big a problem. But factory farms and monoculture are a problem. Crazy environmentalists are also a problem. First they say that hydropower is good, and then after the dams are built, they say "Tear them down." You can predict with certainty that something similar will happen with biodiesel, or windmill farms, or anything else pushed on a gigantic scale by socialist bureaucracies.
Not THE Janjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan!! Isn't that where they found the Oompa-Loompas?
I've said it before, and I'll say it again, NUCLEAR NOW!
You'll never get out of this place alive !
....meanwhile, the fact remains that the best & easiest oil seed crop is modified hemp, but nooooooooooo.......
Wonder whats UNDER Greenland.. HMMM.. OIL?
Psssst... NUCLEAR "waste" is actually a recyclable energy source!!!
I agree, nuclear is the cleanest, best source of power we have. But the moonbats will never go for it.
I agree, nuclear is the cleanest, best source of power we have. But the moonbats will never go for it.
So... Forests are cut down to plant... more forests ("oil-palm plantations" are simply man-made palm forests, no?) And this is a problem, why?
Environmentalists are simply baffling at times.
Because the oil-palm plantations do not sequester as much carbon as the forests they replace. In addition, when forested peat-bog areas are cleared and drained for plam plantations, the peat becomes exposed to the air and can oxidize, releasing all the carbon sequestered in it, which again outweighs the amount sequestered by the palm plantations grown on them.
That's what the article had to say about it, anyway.
How can you scientifically prove any of these carbon calculation claims? I think that its the new soft speak for the parallel universe.
Boidissel proponents have done studies that prove this to be a laughable claim at best.
He then goes on to attack one particular way of making biodissel which is horribly inefficient because most of the crop is burnt and it uses land horribly inefficiently.
The then comes to the conclusion that all biodissel is bad and our only solution is to drastically cut consumption.
I don't know enough about palm oil production to know if his claims about it have any merit or not. However, considering that honesty and integrity don't appear to be strong points for him, I'm skeptical that he's presenting that reasonably either.
Unintended consequences bump.
It makes some sense to me too. This year I'm planning on laying in five cords of wood to heat my house next winter. If everyone in Connecticut did that it would be a desert.
Nuke Global Warming needs to be on a bumper sticker.
"I've said it before, and I'll say it again, NUCLEAR NOW!"
I can fill up my Dodge TD right now with bio-diesel. It would be a tight fit to squash your average nuclear power plant into the bed of my pick-up.....probably exceed GVW too.
IMHO, if we only have a few hundred years worth of fossil fuels left, we might as well leave the world a little warmer when the fires go out.
I'm not defending this guy, but I read that line a little differently. My take on it was that if the world's energy needs were funneled entirely through biofuels, the next amount of Carbon required would be 400 times more than all the world's plants produce. In short, if we could farm the entire planet, the total material available would be far less than required.
"Moonbiot? Is that French for Moonbat?"
Must not be a coincidence as I was thinking just the same thing.......
Yes, I'm putting in a second wood stove this spring and building a woodshed, and we'll cut our own wood. But as you say, not everyone can do that. We need to find a variety of solutions rather than go bananas over whatever is the latest fashionable idea.
The one exception may be nuclear power. I think we need to do that on a fairly large scale.
I think biodiesel in sustainable amounts is a good idea, especially in rural areas. Similarly, I like wood stoves if you have firewood handy. Or wood furnaces if lumber companies in the area are producing wood chips. But making biofuel on a huge scale and subsidizing it with tax money is not a good idea.
I think we would prefer to live in an interglacial period than a glacial period. But I think it is also true that we prefer mean states rather than extrema at either the cold or warm end of the bell curve.
Ricardo expects new technologyAt this rate, Ricardo estimates that diesel car sales will reach a market penetration in excess of 40 per cent in 2002 and 50 per cent, potentially, by 2005. In terms of major markets, France and Germany continue to enjoy rapid growth, with Italy experiencing more modest increases. Sales of diesel cars in France, Spain, Austria, Belgium and Luxembourg already exceed those for gasoline cars. The UK, which for six years has experienced a steady decline, witnessed a significant turnaround last year with a sharp rise in diesel sales of 39 per cent. Ricardo, which has pioneered much of the development work in advanced gasoline and diesel engines and monitors market trends on behalf of its many clients worldwide, says that improvements in diesel engine performance, driving characteristics and refinement are helping to drive the rapid growth of diesel engine sales across Europe.
to continue fuelling diesel sales
05 April 2002
In plain English, this means that every year we use four centuries worth of plants and animals.
And the earth is how old?
..if we converted all our energy used to biomass sources, is the author's point.
The Earth is really old.