Yes we can! Eco bit 6: The conundrum of bio-fuels

Some people think saving the world is easy.  Or at least obvious.  But although some of the answers might be obvious, solutions to some of the biggest problems aren’t so amenable to quick answers as you think at first.

Biofuels is an example of one of the bigger conundrums.  Bio-fuels are made from sugar cane or wheat or many other plants we can grow in our fields.  At first we thought is was a limitless source of cheap energy.  But the price for this “cheap” energy might be very high.

On the plus side of bio-fuels is the fact that they aren’t oil.  We can grow it instead of digging it out of the ground and then piping it and shipping it around the world and into our cars and airplanes and heating systems.  Since it isn’t oil, the source of bio-fuels reduces the tensions with places like the Middle East where oil is most plentiful in the ground.

That might be close to the only advantage of bio-fuels if we do not watch how they are used.  Because bio-fuels are not carbon neutral which everybody first thought unless all the bi-products that are left over after plants are converted into fuel are also put to use.  One of these uses would be to produce hi-protein cattle feed, but if the use of these by-products is not legislated by law, there is the imminent risk that they will simply generate more garbage.

Another big problem with bio-fuels is that farmers who have been growing food on fairly poor land to produce desperately needed food are switching to crops for bio-fuels which pay much better.  So food is getting more expensive – you may have already noticed – and more people are on the edge of starvation.  25% of the US corn crop is already going into bio-ethanol.

There are two kinds of bio-fuels, and one kind – bio-diesel – is made from oil-rich crops such as soy, rape, and palm.  Virgin rain-forest in Indonesia and Malaysia is being cut down for these crops.  This is throwing more CO2 into the atmosphere, more people are starving, and prices for both food and bio-diesel are going up.

 In other words, we just don’t have enough land on planet Earth to grow both all the food and all energy crops we want.  And the problem is only going to get worse as the world population increases and developing world gets hungrier both for energy and for meat, the kind of energy consuming food that up until now has been mostly consumed only by the affluent.


About Terry Sissons

Terry Sissons is the author of The Big Bang to Now: All of Time in Six Chunks, and this blog is a dialogue about the universe and what’s happened in the last 13 billions years.
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2 Responses to Yes we can! Eco bit 6: The conundrum of bio-fuels

  1. Leon Young says:

    You make some interesting points. But this is a complex set of issues that needs further explanation. After a lot of research I wrote my own blog post recently

    The more I research the topic, the more complex and less clear cut it gets!

    • I’ve read your blog post. You’ve done more thinking/research than I have, but we are definitely on the same track. i.e: it’s a very complex question and the more one learns, the sticker it seems to get. Of course, part of the solution which neither of our blog postings addresses is conservation. And – dare I say it? – a drastic slow down, if not an actual halt, to the expansion of the population of the human species. This, unfortunately, might be one of the involuntary outcomes of however we proceed in relation to not only energy but our other global problems as well.

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