Friday, April 25, 2008

Feed people not planes -- the fake climate change solution

by Renee Sams

ON 1st March an “open skies” policy took effect, sparking off an unprecedented boom in air travel as about 100 new air routes will be launched from Britain to Europe this summer. Happy holidaymakers will be looking forward to enjoying cheap flights to their favourite places.

And Heathrow’s new Terminal Five opened with the chaos of cancelled planes and stacks of luggage mounting up, which will take weeks to sort out. Transatlantic flights are expected to increase by a quarter, which will mean up to 524 extra flights a month.

On the 18th March the world’s biggest airliner touched down for the first time in commercial service. The A380 airbus owned by Singapore Airlines has been described as “the plane built for Heathrow”.

The timetable specialists OAG have calculated that during April nearly 200 new departures a day are expected from this country. And a year-on-year increase of 5,853 flights from here to Europe is likely as new destinations such as Bournemouth to Wroclaw and Liverpool to Santiago de Compostela begin to operate.

A few weeks ago Virgin Atlantic flew one of their fleet of 747s to New York using biofuel, signalling that with all this increase in air traffic an alternative fuel to petroleum and paraffin may be needed sooner rather than later.

On his website Sir Richard Branson claimed that they were using biofuel “that doesn’t compete with food or fresh water” and that this is “part of Virgin’s drive to reduce environmental impact” and that “this breakthrough would help to fly its planes using clean fuel sooner than expected”.

The press release added that the Virgin Group has pledged to do all it can “towards developing clean energy” And the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy has been given the task of setting up a Biofuel Development Board.

But there is already considerable doubt as to how clean that energy is and what kind of impact it will have on the environment.

Two papers published in Science early this year, concluded that “clearing land for biofuel would produce twice as much greenhouse gas than the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had previously estimated.”

So, if Sir Richard intends to use biofuel or (agro fuel as it should be known) his pledge to “reduce the impact on the environment” is just a lot of greenwash.

Biofuel is not new; it was used in the early days of the car industry. Nikolaus August Otto, the inventor of the internal combustion engine conceived it to run on ethanol and the inventor of the diesel engine, Rudolf Diesel, designed it to run on peanut oil. The Model T Ford produced by Henry ford from 1903 to 1936 was designed to run on fuel derived from hemp.
But when enormous supplies of crude oil were discovered in Pennsylvania and Texas petroleum-based fuels became cheap and the car industry changed to the use of petrol and diesel.

But the political conflicts in the Middle East in 1973 and 1979 caused the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (Opec) to cut its exports and there was a sharp decrease in supplies of oil to the non-Opec countries causing an “energy crisis”.

That sparked off a new wave of interest in energy issues and since the year 2000 renewed interest in biofuel.

Biofuel is made from biomass derived from living organisms including plants, both food and non-food. Agricultural plants used to make biofuel include corn, switch grass, and soybeans primarily in the United States and rapeseed, wheat and sugar beet primarily in Europe. The crop in Brazil is sugar cane, and in South East Asia palm oil and miscanthus, sorghum and cassava in China and jatropha in India.

The problem is it needs vast areas of land to grow enough of either food or non-food crops to make enough fuel to supply the ever-expanding need for energy for vehicles and planes. Monoculture expansion for biofuel is the fastest growing cause of rainforest destruction. Shortages of food will be the result if increasing areas of land are used to feed cars and planes instead of people

Another often overlooked effect is that deforestation and land use change is responsible for about one quarter of total global CO2 emissions. Some rainforest ecosystems are now in danger of collapse.

The Amazon has been “drying out” in recent years and if this process continues vast fire could take hold and precipitate a change to a very different type of “dry forest” or savannah.

This would release enormous quantities of CO2 that could cause a change that might escalate completely out of control.

Deforestation is the biggest driver in this process combined with the already higher temperatures from global warming, itself already exacerbated by deforestation.

There is one kind of biofuel, however, that is really renewable and that is made from waste materials, household or industrial could produce a useful amount of power. A three megawatt landfill power plant could produce energy for 1,900 homes and would eliminate 6,000 tonnes per year of methane escaping into the environment.

But such biofuel however, could only deliver a fraction of the amount needed for the ever growing demand for power in a modern technological society.

It is now clear that the rich capitalist world is intending to replace fossil fuels which are now more expensive with biofuel or agrofuel made from growing crops. This would need massive areas of land that it would mean shortage of agricultural land for the poorer countries of the world.

Vegetable crops can be used for either fuel or food and can be made into biodiesel which has become the most common biofuel in Europe.

Bioethanol has roughly one-third lower energy content per unity of volume compared to gasoline(petrol) so larger fuel tanks are required to travel the same distance and per unit of distance travelled ethanol still costs more than the current high price of petrol.

First generation biofuels are made from sugar, starch, vegetable oil or animal fats using conventional technology. Now there are calls for increased support for a second generation biofuel made from non-food crops.

Second generation biofuel is made can be made from the stalks of wheat, corn, wood, and non-food crops such as the weed jatropha. Many of these second generation fuels are under development making bio-diesel, bio-hydrogen, mixed alcohols cellulosic ethanol and wood diesel.

General Motors has a project to produce cellulosic ethanol for a projected cost of $1 a gallon. This type of ethanol is five times more energy efficient than ethanol produced from corn. This type of biofuel would cause less damage but would still use enormous areas of land needed for food crops.

The third generation of biofuel, (now under development) is made from algae which is said to produce 30 more times energy per acre of land than other crops and with the high price of oil there is now an interest in algaculture (farming algae). This type of biofuel may have less of an impact on environment than some other types.

World leaders in use and development of bioenergy are Brazil, United States, France, Sweden and Germany.

In Brazil, where ethanol production and use are well advanced, the government aims to expand the production of diesel which must contain two per cent biodiesel by 2008 keep, increasing it up to five per cent by 2013.

In the United States President George Bush said in a State of the Union speech in 2006 that the US is “addicted to oil” and should replace 75 per cent of imported oil by 2025 by alternative sources including biofuels.

The US Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 requires American “fuel producers to use at least 36 billion gallons of biofuel by 2022. This is a fivefold increase over current levels.”

“America’s ethanol programme is a product of government subsidies. There are more than 200 different kinds as well as a 54 cent-a-gallon tariff on imported ethanol. That keeps out greener Brazilian ethanol, which is made from sugar rather than maize. Federal subsidies alone cost $7 billion a year (equal to around 1.90 per cent a gallon).

The European Union, in a directive updated in 2006, is aiming for each member state to use at least 5.75 per cent biofuel across all traffic by 2010 and 10 per cent by 2020.

France is the second largest biofuel consumer in the EU; in 2006 consumption increased by 62.7 per cent, a large proportion of it being biodiesel. The French agro-industrial group Tereos is all set to increase its production of bioethanol.

Germany is a major contender in bioethanol production with the big sugar corporation Sudzucker and ADM Oelmuhle Hamburg AG I s the largest biodiesel company.

In this country from the 15th April, the Renewable Transport Fuel Order (RTFO) makes it obligatory for all road fuels to contain 2.5 per cent of biofuel, which will rise to five per cent by April 2010 and the biofuel additive can come from any source, such as the rainforest, but consumers have no say in this matter.

The damage to the environment is already becoming evident. Prices of crops such as soya, sugar cane and palm oil are increasing rapidly and the monoculture for biofuel is now the fastest growing cause of rainforest destruction
The biofuel lobby is endeavouring to get people to accept that the use of biofuel would actually reduce “greenhouse gas” emissions and increase energy security by providing an alternative to fossil fuels.

The theory is that because these fuels absorb as much CO2 when they grow as they emit when they are burnt, they are basically “carbon neutral”.

Recent research by Nobel prize-winning scientist Paul Crutzen, however, shows that the release of nitrous oxide from rapeseed oil and maize contribute more to global warming than the fossil fuels they replace.

Despite all this damning evidence, capitalists are determined to carry on using bioethanol and a new corporate alliance has evolved around the agrofuel boom. Big business, venture capitalists, car manufacturers and the oil companies are forming a powerful self-interested lobby influencing all the decisions that are made.

More and more people in countries all over the world are becoming alert to the dangers of climate change and making their opposition loud and clear