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Everyone agrees, on the other hand, that sugar would make a much better base crop. Brazil has replaced 40 percent of its gasoline consumption with sugar-based ethanol, although it has a much smaller fleet of cars. The American sugar industry is protected by a 4-cents-per-pound import duty, however, and there is a 54-cents-per-gallon tariff on Brazilian ethanol. There are constant cries to remove the duty, but that means tackling a powerful farm constituency, the sugar lobby.
The dream of environmentalists is that we will eventually produce ethanol from cellulose, the fibrous material that makes up about 95 percent of most plants. (Currently only seeds and sugars can be distilled into alcohol.) The only thing in nature that breaks down cellulose is the bacteria that live in the gut of cows and termites. Numerous efforts are being made to domesticate these microorganisms and deploy them on an industrial scale, but none has succeeded. No one even knows if it is possible. Meanwhile, corn-based ethanol remains uneconomical.
Undaunted, biofuels enthusiasts soon cooked up the rumor that at least fuel crops were reducing global warming. The logic went like this: Burning fossil fuels releases carbon that has been buried in the earth for hundreds of millions of years. Burning crops, however, only releases carbon that was photosynthesized last year. Therefore the process is “carbon neutral.”
All this works as long as you don’t ask one question, “What was growing on the land before the bio-crops were planted?” If it was food or fiber, then it would be a long, long time before most of the carbon returned to the atmosphere. If it was a standing forest, then planting biofuels is the equivalent of setting fire to the trees.
All this was glossed over as long as biofuels remained an American Midwestern phenomenon. As it moved to the tropics, however, the outcome has been devastating.
IN AN ERA WHEN “Save the Rainforests” is an international crusade, tropical rainforests from Brazil to Malaysia are now being cleared for palm oil plantations sending “biodiesel” fuels to Europe and America. Three years ago, Friends of the Earth discovered that the clearing was threatening the last refuge of the orangutan. Trumpeting an “oil-for-apes scandal,” environmentalists have since convinced the European Union to end biofuels imports. Ironically, Friends of the Earth was Lovins’ home organization when he first proposed all this in 1976.
Even so, growing crops for fuel is having a worldwide impact on food prices. Mexico has had “tortilla riots” over the high corn prices. In December, a report from the International Monetary fund warned that “a significant part of the latest jump in food prices can be traced directly to biofuels policy.” As Jordan and Powell of Polytechnic concluded: “It is morally wrong to divert cropland needed for human food supply to powering automobiles.”
Last week’s reports in Science makes the whole biofuels effort seem even more ridiculous. One study, headed by environmental economist Timothy Searchinger of Princeton, concluded that growing biofuels almost anywhere will result in land being cleared somewhere else for food or fuel. The other study, headed by Joseph Fargione of the Nature Conservancy, calculated that clearing grasslands for biofuels increases carbon emissions 93 times in the first year. “So for the next 93 years you’re making climate change worse,” concluded Fargione.
What’s the moral of all this? Energy issues should be resolved in the marketplace, not by legislation. Put a price on carbon emissions — either through a straight carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system — and then let the market sort things out. (Once again, McCain is in the lead, proposing such a measure in the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act.)
In what direction is this likely to take us? I don’t know any more than anyone else, but I do know that nuclear reactors are now making so much money that the attorney general of Connecticut has proposed a windfall profits tax.
I also know if we’re ever going to develop electric cars, we’ll need a lot more electricity. Putting a price on carbon emissions would make the economics of carbon-free nuclear electricity even more favorable. But that’s another story.