Biofuels, how long before the stupidity ends

I always believed that good environmental policies are crucial to the future of this planet, but for every year that goes by my faith in humanity’s ability to enact useful ones diminish. Partly because I think the main environmental issue is human overpopulation and unfortunately faith based organizations have sabotaged every UN attempt at pushing for some global policies and debates on that.

The other thing is that politicians seems unable to react in an intelligent way when faced with new data. And I am not just talking about the American right holding their hands over their ears screaming lalala for many years instead of facing the facts that global warming was real. Or arguments that science will be able to overcome any problems eventually so there is no need for hard hitting policies, the last argument strikes me as the same as encouraging unprotected sex with HIV positive people since science will probably come up with a cure before you die from Aids. While I am a strong believer in what science can accomplish you have to make your plans on what is currently available, not on what you hope is going to happen.

One of my favourite examples of political stupidity from Norway is milk carton recycling. You see, for many years the government did huge campaigns to try to get people to send in their milk cartons for recycling, most of these campaigns especially targeted towards children. Then some years ago a researcher pointed out that recycling these cartons was actually less environmentally friendly than just burning them. The pollution caused by transporting them in for recycling combined with the chemicals they had to use to dissolve the wax protection on the cardboard was a bigger environmental hazard than actually just burning the cartons at the local garbage treatment plants. So what did the government representative say when faced with this? Did the representative say that with this new information the recycling project would be stopped? No, instead the representative managed to say that since stopping the recycling project might undermine the faith in the environmental policies and due to the great symbol value of the project for environmental protection it would continue…… Yep, nothing strengthens policy support and provides greater symbol value than doing something stupid.

These days we are faced we what has turned out to be a similar stupidity on a global scale. Biofuels.

Biofuels has been hailed as a white knight for both energy problems and environmental policies, but recent research has shown that it actually might be a environmental disaster, not to mention its contribution to the rising prices of food will also make it a participant in a humanitarian disaster.

The problem with biofuels is that while the plants involved do photosynthesis like any other plant they do less than a similarly sized field of wild plants and trees. And since current biofuel policies are causing a lot more forest and wild fields to be turned into farmland for biofuels, the amount of CO2 converted to Oxygen lessen. And voila, the push for biofuels manage to accelerate global warming instead of slowing it. Question if how many years it will take for politicians to catch on to this and for instance the EU biofuel goal to get scrapped.


#1 Thomas Thurman on 04.22.08 at 14:12

I think the trouble is (and I am by no means an expert) the lack of an upgrade path. Without one, we just tend to lurch. We have a state of affairs where farmers grow crops and produce more than anyone can eat, and policies which make giving the stuff to actual hungry people far more difficult than just throwing it away. So people say, grow less stuff, and we won’t need to waste it. And then someone points out that fuel can be made out of maize, and suddenly the farmers are thinking “Ah, I won’t have to get out of this job and sell my land at an enormous loss and retrain and God knows what else, because I can just grow maize for fuel”, and then it looks like everyone’s happy. But of course it’s monstrously bad for the planet to use these lands for growing maize, which you then burn, when as you mention they could be covered in forest; it would be far better to pay the farmers to reforest them and then figure out ways of needing less fuel. But that would require thinking as if there was such a thing as society, which is an unpopular behaviour these days.

#2 pvanhoof on 04.22.08 at 14:27

If overpopulation of the planet is the problem, we can always start thinking about becoming a member of VHEMT:

#3 John (J5) Palmieri on 04.22.08 at 15:58

The problem is not that cut and dry. Let’s take diesel for example. It used to be hugely inefficient and more harmful to the environment. People in the US are still stuck in that mentality so diesel use has declined but in Europe they took decades to refine the technology and now it is cleaner and packs more energy. That isn’t the complete story though. Diesel still contributes more to certain pollutants (like smog) than gas does but the competition keeps the clean technology bandwagon rolling. If we had just given up and gone with the cleaner technology to begin with chances are (and they are only a high probability because no one can predict what ifs to any degree of certainty) we would have lost out on the research to make these fuels cleaner and more efficient. (same goes for coal plants which can now recapture a large percentage of their pollutants) Even clean energy like dams and wind farms have their costs such as destroying habitats and needing to be placed in specific areas.

Now enter biofuels which is a misnomer because oil is a biofuel that has been sitting in the ground for millions of years. What we refer to as biofuels is just speeding up the process. The problem with this generation of biofuels is we are concentrating on the wrong ones. We are using food crops which are terribly inefficient during the conversion process. It in effect is just moving the pollution to a concentrated area instead of spreading them out amongst cars. In the US we use corn just because subsidies have created a huge surplus. This is bad but let’s not toss the baby out with the bathwater (throw all the research out because of one inefficient process for those who do not know that expression). If you look at Bazil, a country that has largely converted to ethanol, they use sugarcane largely for similar reasons to why the US uses corn. It is a lot more efficient than corn though still not perfect. What it does though is give the biofuel industry motivation and capital to develop better methods. For instance switchgrass which grows places that don’t support regular farming, doesn’t disturb wildlife and is perennial is being looked at as a better way to produce ethanol. Of course right now there is research to show that it has a negative energy output when compared to the amount of fossil fuels needed to convert it.

So the argument isn’t all that cut and dry. Though there is truth in what you wrote, stopping this line on inquiry or dropping the funding is not going to help either. The truth is it is a complex system. Food prices mainly go up because of the cost of transporting (read fuel costs) with biofuels also being a smaller but admittedly rising factor. Overpopulation is mainly an effect of poverty, high infant mortality rates and unemployment. It has been show that as individual wealth grows, dual incomes become important and heath care improves (heathcare and economic growth are hugely correlated) , there is less time to take care of children and no need to have more to offset survival rates. By providing a way for energy to not be monopolized by a few countries and cartels perhaps we contribute to solving the overall problem. Technology does this in India, though only in the big cities right now.

It is all complex and we need to move and shift as we gain more knowledge. There are a number of factors from the environment to poverty to the nature of power (political, economic, etc.) which contribute to the issue we face today. We need to have a balanced approach to it. It is all a risk/benefit calculation. Nothing is ever going to be the perfect solution. Shifting policy instead of deamonizing it will most likely produce better results.

#4 Karl Lattimer on 04.22.08 at 16:23

I’ve long been in the “bloody hippies” camp as you’ve seemed to join.

By hippies I mean, the greenpeacers and others that have been campaigning for this sort of stuff for years… Without having the capability of thinking through the consequences of such a shift.

So here are some other arguments that you’ve missed out on…

Not only are the crops required to make biofuel particularly savage to the environment, including the pesticides and fertilizers etc… but processing is bad too, transportation is more expensive in fuel, never mind the volume of fuel guzzled by the combined harvesters, tractors and other farming machinery… There’s this one last bit which always makes me chuckle…

To displace 100% of fossil fuels with plant biofuel you’d need roughly twice or thrice the surface area of land on earth as arable, farmed land… Which begs the question, where would we live?

Biofuel is a completely retarded debate…

There is one way to make biofuel work, and that’s to use cannabis to produce the methyl alcohol, it produces far higher quantities than maize, and grows in much more varied climates, and will grow inside of 3 months, over and over again, without pesticides or artificial fertilizers… It is after all a weed.

From some of the figures I’ve seen cannabis is capable of producing around 5 times the amount of fuel than maize or corn can by area. That is pretty staggering, and a good argument for it to be used… However… Guess what… If cannabis saves the world, those *other* policy decisions are gonna look pretty stupid…

There are also algae methods which could possibly work, but the investment in making a life form to manufacture fuel is just not there to the extent it would need to be, this is again as unfortunate as the cannabis as fuel method. Especially as the algae could be grown on the seas.

So, there’s just no solution, the greentards need to be stopped as much as the policytards… The problem is that these tards don’t want to admit they’re wrong…

Then there’s the climate change issue… If you read the right reports, i.e. the ones that don’t support the governments “energy crisis” agenda, then you’ll see its part of the cycle of earth… Yes it’s happening but we can’t stop it…

Now the energy crisis is about war, I’m sure the rest you can put together yourself.

#5 tretle on 04.22.08 at 17:39

Biofuels could just balance out the agriculture in countries like Ireland which depends much too heavily on livestock and has virtually no national energy reserve. hmm…. well what I mean by that is we are very dependant on other countries for our energy needs. I dont think its a case of biofuel=more land needed its more like biofuel= livestock/2.
Imagine how much we would save our ozone if there were less of those pesky animals burning it away :D lol

#6 Aids » Blog Archive » Christian Schaller: Biofuels, how long before the stupidity ends on 04.22.08 at 17:53

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#7 Hajdi on 04.22.08 at 18:22

Global worming is real but, Christian why do you think that human race has any major impact on it?

#8 Alexander Boström on 04.22.08 at 19:46

Add to that the utter stupidity of _cutting down rainforest_ in Borneo to produce palm oil for fuel. It’s bad enough to do it to produce palm oil for food, but when people start burning that oil the quantities increase a lot. If you buy “biodiesel”, make _sure_ you know where it comes from. If it’s (part) palm oil, buy regular fossil fuel instead.

#9 Matthew W. S. Bell on 04.22.08 at 20:38

Er, hang on… surely the question is whether using biofuels is better or worse than having these fields of wild flora and still burning fossil fuels…?

#10 uraeus on 04.23.08 at 00:27

@Matthew: Biofuels are no more environmentally friendly than fossil fuels. In fact fossil fuels are just really old biofuel. So by trading in fossil fuel for biofuel you get same amount of CO2 pollution just less absorption from the plant life. In other words failure.

@Hajdi: Are you kidding me? We are changing the chemical composition of our atmosphere at a rapid pace and you wondering if we are having any major impact?

#11 lixfe on 04.23.08 at 00:53

My opinion about that “biofuel being good for environment” story is that it was just pushed as an environment friendly candy, because of a completely different agenda. It’s all about keeping the economy running (i.e. keep spending more and more fuel) while reduce dependance and outflux of money on import oil. It’s not a coincidence that this happens at the same time as fuel prices are skyrocketing.

Those recent reports seem to be a big blow to that strategy, but I’m sure that EU strategists (or those from any other contry whose economy might suffer long term because of expensive oil) will try hard to keep it forward, by facilitating some studies that have supportive conclusion.

#12 James on 04.23.08 at 03:29

Thomas – farmers currently aren’t growing enough to eat, there’s food riots across the world at the moment. Biofuels are taking food from people’s mouths and burning it in cars.

#13 Paul McGarry on 04.23.08 at 05:41

Biofuels are a fairly young technology and I think it would be stupid to label the biofuel idea “bad” in toto.

There is no getting round the fact that fossil fuels are ultimately a finite resource. We do need to invest and develop in all manner of areas that may bring us some alternatives both in the short and long term and biofuels is clearly one of those areas.

We don’t need people looking at the current state of biofuels (or milk carton recycling) and thinking “It’s shit, let’s stop it”. We need people thinking “It’s shit, how can we improve it”. How can we make it more efficient, how can we mitigate against the downsides etc etc.

We need to continue to advance our knowledge, not look at our current state and give up. We need “do it better energy”, not “stop energy”.

#14 uraeus on 04.23.08 at 06:49

@Paul: I am never one to suggest banning further research on anything. But there is a big difference between doing further research and subsidizing the commercial production of something which currently is causing more damage than anything else. Also your argumentation comes dangerously close to my allegory about the HIV positive.

#15 Paul McGarry on 04.25.08 at 02:12

I think the main problem with you HIV allegory is that the option of using protection is there and relatively cost free, ie has no negative impact.

Here we have competing problems, the effects of biofuels and the effects of fossil fuels (and the inevitable if not immediately pressing, shortage of supply of fossil fuels).

Commercial production is a part of research but we as human beings aren’t going to get it right first time. We will have to adjust and adjust and adjust as we go down the road.

I think we actually agree for the most part, I just think the focus needs to be more on identifying and promoting better policy rather than merely pointing out where current policy fails.

#16 Hajdi on 05.15.08 at 19:26


One of the most important problem when it comes to global warming is emission of CO2. But human race produces minor amounts of it when compared to natural sources like vulcanos. In history of Earth there where many changes of climate (warming or colding) and unfortunately there is nothing we can do about it. Human is just a tiny gear in this process.

People behind this global warming paranoia are just counting on good will people like you to spread disaster stories as much as it is possible. This is just another way to make business. US and EU governments pay big cash for climate research and the scariest stories scientiests tell, the bigger funds. Open your eyes and check also other scientific sources than the ones coming from people who are earning money on it.