Bio-fuel is creating more problems than it’s fixing…like deforestation. This isn’t new information, but until the media starts pushing it on A1, nobody will care.

From TIME:

Backed by billions in investment capital, this alarming phenomenon is replicating itself around the world. Indonesia has bulldozed and burned so much wilderness to grow palm oil trees for biodiesel that its ranking among the world’s top carbon emitters has surged from 21st to third according to a report by Wetlands International. Malaysia is converting forests into palm oil farms so rapidly that it’s running out of uncultivated land.

But most of the damage created by biofuels will be less direct and less obvious. In Brazil, for instance, only a tiny portion of the Amazon is being torn down to grow the sugarcane that fuels most Brazilian cars. More deforestation results from a chain reaction so vast it’s subtle: U.S. farmers are selling one-fifth of their corn to ethanol production, so U.S. soybean farmers are switching to corn, so Brazilian soybean farmers are expanding into cattle pastures, so Brazilian cattlemen are displaced to the Amazon. It’s the remorseless economics of commodities markets. “The price of soybeans goes up,” laments Sandro Menezes, a biologist with Conservation International in Brazil, “and the forest comes down.”

Deforestation accounts for 20% of all current carbon emissions. So unless the world can eliminate emissions from all other sources–cars, power plants, factories, even flatulent cows–it needs to reduce deforestation or risk an environmental catastrophe. That means limiting the expansion of agriculture, a daunting task as the world’s population keeps expanding. And saving forests is probably an impossibility so long as vast expanses of cropland are used to grow modest amounts of fuel. The biofuels boom, in short, is one that could haunt the planet for generations–and it’s only getting started.

There’s a valid case to be made that we need to ween ourselves off of crude for geo-political reasons, but bio-fuel won’t come close to doing that and everybody knows it.

I just can’t help but think there’s going to be some worldwide energy bubble that won’t just burst, it’ll explode. Will it be in our lifetimes?


  1. I don’t think biofuels derived from any crops can be part of the solution until they develop economical systems for using switchgrass and similar crops that take very little energy input to produce. And the only real solution will be a multi-pronged approach of affordable solar power systems for individual homes, industrial level solar, wind, nuclear, clean coal (Or as clean as it can be given the mining process.), biofuels and conservation. Conservation doesn’t have to mean major sacrifices either. We’ve just scratched the surface on making our appliances and electronics more energy efficient and virtually no buildings have been retrofitted for greater energy efficiency. Tax credits, subsidies and publicity for the ability to do so would be a useful government program to reduce our energy usage.

  2. That’s basically my guess too. Sooner or later the market and technologicial advances are going to show us which few plants are the winners when it comes to making fuel from plants. I don’t know enough to know which ones they’ll be. But if there’s a way to use simple, quick growing plants like grass, those do seem to have an inherent advantage over tempermental input-intensive plants like corn, and trees, which take longer to mature. Of course, the simpler plants don’t yield products that are energy-dense, which corn does, and which palm kernel trees do. So we’ll have to wait and see.

    But here’s the thing. Right now, folks are using what they they have a lot of and what’s available in using corn and palm kernel oil. How likely is it that these plants turn out to be the optimal sources?

    One way or the other, biofuels boil down to letting plants capture the sun’s energy, and then harvesting that energy to use as our fuel. Some plants are going to do this more efficiently than others, and then from there some of the processes we develop to harvest that energy are going to be more efficient than others. For things like powering cars, we do need energy-dense fuel. So if we use corn and palm kernel oil, the stuff we extract is more energy dense than if we use grass. So if we use grass, then we have to come up with more efficient concentration processes than what corn performs, or what palm tree performs.

  3. It’s not just how much energy the plants yield when processed but how much energy is used in growing them. If the plants being grown basically only need to be planted and then cut to be harvested (and watered in extremely dry weather) then the ratio of energy yielded to energy invested is higher and that’s the number that matters.