The great biodiesel con

LAST UPDATED: 16 Oct, 2010 @ 18:14
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In Issue Two of the Olive Press we published an article entitled “The benefits of biodiesel”. Several readers wrote in to refute the claims made therein, referring to an article written by George Monbiotin which he points out that biodiesel enthusiasts have accidentally invented the most carbon-intensive fuel on earth

By George Monbiot

OVER the past two years I have made an uncomfortable discovery. Like most environmentalists, I have been as blind to the constraints affecting our energy supply as my opponents have been to climate change. I now realise that I have entertained a belief in magic.

In 2003, the biologist Jeffrey Dukes calculated that the fossil fuels we burn in one year were made from organic matter “containing 44×10 to the 18 grams of carbon, which is mor than 400 times the net primary productivity of the planet’s current biota.” In plain English, this means that every year we use four centuries’ worth of plants and animals.

The idea that we can simply replace this fossil legacy – and the extraordinary power densities it gives us – with ambient energy is the stuff of science fiction. There is simply no substitute for cutting back. But substitutes are being sought everywhere. They are being promoted today at the climate talks in Montreal , by states – such as ours – which seek to avoid the hard decisions climate change demands. And at least one of them is worse than the fossil fuel burning it replaces.

The last time I drew attention to the hazards of making diesel fuel from vegetable oils, I received as much abuse as I have ever been sent by the supporters of the Iraq war. The biodiesel missionaries, I discovered, are as vociferous in their denial as the executives of Exxon. I am now prepared to admit that my previous column was wrong. But they’re not going to like it. I was wrong because I underestimated the fuel’s destructive impact.

Before I go any further, I should make it clear that turning used chip fat into motor fuel is a good thing. The people slithering around all day in vats of filth are performing a service to society. But there is enough waste cooking oil in the UK to meet one 380th of our demand for road transport fuel. Beyond that, the trouble begins.When I wrote about it last year, I thought that the biggest problem caused by biodiesel was that it set up a competition for land. Arable land that would otherwise have been used to grow food would instead be used to grow fuel. But now I find that something even worse is happening. The biodiesel industry has accidentally invented the world’s most carbon-intensive fuel.

In promoting biodiesel – as the European Union, the British and US governments and thousands of environmental campaigners do – you might imagine that you are creating a market for old chip fat, or rapeseed oil, or oil from algae grown in desert ponds. In reality you are creating a market for the most destructive crop on earth.

Last week, the chairman of Malaysia ’s Federal Land Development Authority announced that he was about to build a new biodiesel plant. His was the ninth such decision in four months. Four new refineries are being built in Peninsula Malaysia, one in Sarawak and two in Rotterdam. Two foreign consortia – one German, one American – are setting up rival plants in Singapore. All of them will be making biodiesel from the same source: oil from palm trees.

“The demand for biodiesel,” the Malaysian Star reports, “will come from the European Community … This fresh demand … would, at the very least, take up most of Malaysia’s crude palm oil inventories”. Why? Because it’s cheaper than biodiesel made from any other crop.

In September, Friends of the Earth published a report about the impacts of palm oil production. “Between 1985 and 2000,” it found, “the development of oil-palm plantations was responsible for an estimated 87 per cent of deforestation in Malaysia. In Sumatra and Borneo, some 4 million hectares of forest has been converted to palm farms. Now a further 6 million hectares is scheduled for
clearance in Malaysia, and 16.5m in Indonesia.

Almost all the remaining forest is at risk. Even the famous Tanjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan is being ripped apart by oil planters. The orang-utan is likely to become extinct in the wild. Sumatran rhinos, tigers, gibbons, tapirs, proboscis monkeys and thousands of other species could go the same way. Thousands of indigenous people have been evicted from their lands, and some 500 Indonesians have been tortured when they tried to resist. The forest fires which every so often smother the region in smog are mostly started by the palm growers. The entire region is being turned into a gigantic vegetable oil field.

Before oil palms, which are small and scrubby, are planted, vast forest trees, containing a much greater store of carbon, must be felled and burnt. Having used up the drier lands, the plantations are now moving into the swamp forests, which grow on peat. When they’ve cut the trees, the planters drain the ground. As the peat dries it oxidises, releasing even more carbon dioxide than the trees. In terms of its impact on both the local and global environments, palm biodiesel is more destructive than crude oil from Nigeria.

All this illustrates the futility of the technofixes now being pursued in Montreal . Trying to meet a rising demand for fuel is madness, wherever the fuel might come from. The hard decisions have been avoided, and another portion of the biosphere is going up in smoke.

  • First published in the Guardian 6th December 2005. Reproduced with kind permission.
  • For sources see www.monbiot.com

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