Thursday, June 02, 2011

"The trees are strong, my lord. Their roots go deep."

I thought biofuels were supposed to be carbon neutral. Not according to this recent report commissioned by Friends of the Earth. It seems that bio-ethanol and bio-diesel are going to produce more carbon dioxide than the fossil fuels that they’re supposed to replace.

In fossil fuels, CO2 that was photosynthesised into organic matter thousands of millions of years ago is released into the Earth’s atmosphere. Strictly speaking, ‘back into’, but because the planet’s atmosphere has changed since the Carboniferous age, let’s assume that burning fossil fuels creates new CO2 that causes a greenhouse effect, melts the polar ice caps, and generally annoys Ursus maritimus.

Now, what we were previously sold was the idea that biofuels were carbon neutral. You plant a field of, say, sunflowers. They grow, photosysnthesise, and turn sunlight into sunflower seeds. Processing those sunflower seeds, peanuts, oil-seed rape, sugar cane, or whatever, produces a liquid fuel that you burn in your internal combustion engine to produce energy, releasing the CO2 back into the atmosphere. That’s the important bit: ‘back’. If the cultivation and manufacturing processes also use a biofuel energy source, there is zero increase in atmospheric CO2 levels.

But this is wrong, according to Friends of the Earth. The report says that over the next 20 years, converting European land (presumably moors, forests and other non-agricultural land) will produce around a billion tonnes of CO2 as a one-off: equivalent to ‘up to’ an additional 6% of total European Union transport emissions in 2007.

Where is all this extra CO2 going to come from? Destroying the trees? ‘Land-use change’ appears to assume that the trees are all torn down and burned in a vast bonfire.

Therefore we should leave the trees alone, right? What would happen if those trees were not replaced by fields of biofuel crops (that are basically carbon neutral)?

The trees would eventually die and rot away, releasing all their CO2 back into the atmosphere, that's what.

If we cut down the trees and made furniture, what would become of that furniture when it’s old and broken? Landfill? Firewood?

It doesn’t matter if we leave those trees untouched, burn them, or turn them into tables or boats, all the CO2 absorbed by the trees is ultimately headed back into the atmosphere. Pretending that trees absorb CO2 for all time is self-deluding to the point of being disingenuous tosh.

What does the FoE report suggest we do? Lobby to reduce the amount of biofuel in our petrol. Amend biofuel policies and prioritise energy efficiency and renewable electricity. What it doesn’t say is where all this renewable electricity is going to come from without, presumably, turning vast areas of natural wetlands into tidal power stations, putting enormous windmills on every hilltop, or mining the planet for cadmium, indium, gallium, palladium, selenium, silicon and tellurium to make photovoltaic panels. At least silicon is almost literally as common as muck.

Meanwhile, what we really need to do is throw away our gas-guzzling cars and aircraft. Go back to horse-drawn transport. But wait: doesn’t a horse consume biofuel feedstock and turn it into energy and carbon dioxide?

Perhaps Friends of the Earth and their ilk would advocate that we go back to a simpler age when the human population of the planet was a lot smaller. But that’s too politically incorrect to suggest, isn’t it?

Link to FoE website

Link to the report



Gnomad said...

It seems to me that the main problem with bio-fuels is that it's production takes agricultural land that would otherwise be used for food production.

This is not such a great problem in Europe, but when bio-fuels are promoted as a source of revenue in developing world countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, governments are tempted to grow bio-fuel plants as a cash crop to pay off their debt to the first world, or fund their internecine wars, at the expense of the agriculture that feeds the indigenous population.

Every famine in Africa in the 20th century was man made, the production of bio-fuels have the potential to cause the next one if not very carefully administered.

Jayne said...

Mr Goat, reading such a technical post before 8am really is not good for my old age! However, I can suggest wiping out the population of several countries in order to make things easier on our poor old planet!


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