The EU wants biofuels to make up 10 percent of transport fuels by 2020, and whether or not this has caused the recent food crisis, it has already begun to reduce our capacity to prevent climate change.
Rather than reducing greenhouse gas emissions, this approach is likely to make the problem worse, and the haste to grow the biofuels industry is merely the latest in a century long line of examples of the 'take-make-waste' thinking that produced global warming.
One of the most insidious outcomes of this thinking is the search for the quick fix. Ethanol, for example, was seen by policymakers as an easy way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with farmers and fuel companies taking advantage of a quick way to meet rising market demand for clean fuels while generating revenue in tough economic conditions. The World Bank has since estimated that corn prices rose by more than 60 percent from 2005 to 2007 due to these policies.
The broader implications, however, go far beyond the current food crisis. Marginal lands and forests have been cleared for biofuels production, making it even more difficult for forests and agricultural lands to act as sinks to absorb CO2. In South-East Asia for example, 87% of all deforestation between 1985 and 2000 can be attributed to the palm oil plantations, according to Friends of the Earth.
One of the reasons government and industry pursue quick fixes is to avoid the fundamental changes needed to resolve complex problems such as global warming. For example, they hope that technological solutions such as ethanol can solve the problems without having to make deep-seated changes in our mobility systems.
This is a form of wishful thinking. It is based on the hope that some new invention will resolve our problems and relieve us of the need to alter our behaviour. The reality, however, is that rather than solving the problem, given our current thinking most new technologies require more of everything—more resource extraction, more raw materials, more processing, more transportation, and even more energy.
Numerous studies, for example, have demonstrated that the energy return on energy invested (EROI) from most forms of corn and sugar-based ethanol is at best marginal and at worse a net loss. Bio-ethanol must also be grown, collected, dried, fermented, and burned. These steps require resources, infrastructure and transportation that often produce as much pollution as ethanol saves.
The destruction of farm lands and impacts on small farmers and communities in East Africa and Brazil may be even greater than the energy balance and pollution problems. Even the shift to non-food based biofuels such as algae, food waste, and other cellulosic-based fuels runs the risk of unintended ecological, economic and social consequences. Great care must be taken to consider the systems-effects of biofuels. Quick fix technological solutions usually fail and often make things worse.
The biofuels problem demonstrates once again that global warming is not, at the core, an energy, technology or policy problem. It is the greatest failure of thought in human history. Only after people alter their thinking, which means to think sustainably, will the personal and organizational behaviors, clean energy technologies, and policies required to reduce emissions and stabilize the climate become evident.
To think sustainably means we must avoid quick fix, technology-can-save-us and other harmful thought patterns. We must continually consider the effects of every decision we make on the systems we all rely on for life. Let's hope the EU now understands the errors of their ways and begins to think sustainably as it moves to aggressively reduce emissions.
This article is based on the forthcoming book The Power of Sustainable Thinking: How To Create a Positive Future for the Climate, The Planet, Your Organization and Your Life (Earthscan, 2008).
Bob Doppelt is director of the Climate Leadership Initiative in the Institute for a Sustainable Environment at the University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon, USA.
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