Thursday, April 17, 2008

Will the last defender of biofuels please stand up

You know, I’ve been kind of waiting for someone to come to the defense of biofuels. Yes, it seems the subsidy regime currently employed in the U.S. and Europe is pretty whacked (as the kids would say). But that doesn’t completely nullify their importance, does it?

"Don't tell me, for the love of God, that food is expensive because of biodiesel. Food is expensive because the world wasn't prepared to see millions of Chinese, Indians, Africans, Brazilians and Latin Americans eat," Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva told Reuters.

Lula, a former union leader, rebuffed accusations by Jean Ziegler, U.N. special rapporteur for the right to food. Ziegler this week called biofuels a "crime against humanity," though he referred mainly to U.S. ethanol derived from corn.

"The real crime against humanity is to discredit biofuels a priori and condemn food-starved and energy-starved countries to dependence and insecurity," Lula said at a conference of the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization in Brasilia.

I love your sugarcane...
Gasoline in Brazil is now made through sugar cane, which the country can process for nearly $1 per gallon, at least fifty percent cheaper than processing gasoline (in January 2006, at least). This is because Brazil’s government has not subsidized the country’s sugar makers in the past ten years, keeping costs low, unlike the hefty subsidies handed out by the United States and countries in the European Union.

The popularity of cane-based ethanol has gone through its highs and lows in Brazil, usually fluctuating with the price of oil. However, Brazilian consumers can now purchase “flexible fuel” cars which run on both types of gasoline.

Yet, Brazil’s ethanol industry is not without its critics. Expanding sugar cane harvests, like corn in the U.S., will decrease species diversity and create a land rush that has already displaced some beef and soy farmers (and helped lead to the quickening destruction of the country’s forests).

...but I hate your corn-based ethanol
The problem with U.S. ethanol is that it is made with corn, and costs nearly one-third more to harvest and produce than Brazilian sugar cane. It also diverts an essential food crop to energy production, decreasing supply and driving up prices. It also boosts the use of expensive farming techniques (like irrigation) while expanding monoculture farming. Yet the United States continues to import more than 60 percent of its oil, which is now hovering near all-time record prices, while Brazil has become energy independent (also thanks to huge oil reserves.)

Some scientists in the U.S. found that creating biofuels out of switchgrass produced much more environmental savings and more efficient type of ethanol. Yet, this plants also has its own environmental issues: it requires 45 percent more energy to create the fuel than the fuel produced, according to another study.

Meanwhile, in Burkina Faso...
When Lula visited Burkina Faso in October, he called for a biofuel revolution on the continent. However, I haven’t seen anything on it.

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