“Subsidising biofuels is just about the dumbest way to go.” –– Todd Litman, director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute — Subsidies for 2007 est $13-$15 billion
…increasing biofuel production is a “total disaster” for starving people — Jean Ziegler, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food
By Stephen Leahy
Oct 20 2007 (IPS)
A raft of new studies reveal European and American multibillion dollar support for biofuels is unsustainable, environmentally destructive and much more about subsidising agri-business corporations than combating global warming.
Not only do most forms of biofuel production do little to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, growing biofuel crops uses up precious water resources, increasing the size and extent of dead zones in the oceans, boosting use of toxic pesticides and deforestation in tropical countries, such studies say.
And biofuel, powered by billions of dollars in government subsidies, will drive food prices 20-40 percent higher between now and 2020, predicts the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute.
“Fuel made from food is a dumb idea to put it succinctly,” says Ronald Steenblik, research director at the International Institute for Sustainable Development’s Global Subsidies Initiative (GSI) in Geneva, Switzerland.
Biofuel production in the U.S. and Europe is just another way of subsidising big agri-business corporations, Steenblik told IPS.
“It’s (biofuel) also a distraction from dealing with the real problem of reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” he asserts.
Making fuel out of corn, soy, oilseeds and sugar crops is also incredibly expensive, Steenblik and his co-authors document in two new reports on the U.S. and the European Union that are part of a series titled ‘Biofuels at What Cost? Government Support for Ethanol and Biodiesel’.
Their analysis shows that by 2006 government support for biofuels had reached 11 billion dollars a year for Organisation of Economic Development and Co-operation (OECD) countries. More than 90 percent of those subsidies came from the European Union and the U.S.
These subsidies will likely climb to 13-15 billion dollars this year the report estimates.
“More subsidies are coming as the biofuel industry expands,” says Steenblik.
In fact, countries will have to spend more than 100 billion dollars a year to get biofuel production levels high enough to supply 25 or 30 percent of transport fuel demands.
And those levels of annual subsidies will have to continue because the industry is dependent on them, he says.
It might be worth it if biofuels resulted in significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) but Steenblik calculates the amount of subsidies that goes into making enough ethanol to reduce emissions equivalent of a tonne of carbon dioxide (CO2) is between 2,100 to 4,400 euros (2,980 to 6,240 dollars) depending on the support programmes.
However, the European carbon trading markets sells a similar saved or sequestered tonne of CO2 for less than 25 euros (35 dollars) through various projects like planting trees or installing solar panels.
Various analysis that take the full environmental costs of growing, shipping and processing maize into ethanol show there is only a small reduction in GHG emissions over burning fossil fuels. Newer research shows some biofuels could even be far worse.
Rapeseed biodiesel and maize ethanol may produce up to 70 percent and 50 percent more GHG emissions respectively than fossil fuels, according to work published in September by Nobel prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen and University of Edinburgh colleague Keith Smith.
They found that growing biofuel crops releases around twice the amount of the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide (N2O) than previously thought. The N2O results from using nitrogen fertilisers.
About 80 percent of Europe’s biodiesel comes from rapeseed and in America the vast majority is maize ethanol.
“What we are saying is that growing biofuels is probably of no benefit and in fact is actually making the climate issue worse,” Smith has said in media reports.
Last January, U.S. President George W. Bush set a biofuel target of 35 billion gallons per year by 2017, more than five times the current production of less than 7 billion gallons.
However that target would leave some U.S. waterways polluted and some regions with severe water shortages the National Research Council (NRC) said in a report released this month. The NRC is the research arm of the US National Academy of Sciences.
see also story on cellulosic ethanol
Greenest Ethanol Still Unproven