Friday, March 14, 2008

Unintended Consequences-Biofuels

Often laws, policies and strategies, well-meaning as they may be, suffer from the law of unintended consequences. We see this happening with the growing energy crisis. We have two things occurring that are combining to raise food prices, which hurt all of us, but particularly the world’s poor.

The price of food worldwide is going up because of two interrelated events:

(1) The escalating cost of energy ultimately translates into higher costs for everything else. This is especially true of food, because you need energy to make the fertilizer (unless a farmer uses what nature provides from animals); you need energy to work the farm equipment; you need energy to transport the food from farm to processing plant or marketplace; and you need energy to process it (if it is processed in some way, including canned or frozen); and you need energy to manufacture the packaging.

(2) While this is happening, grain is being taken out of the food chain and used to make a substitute fuel. This increased demand is further driving costs up. Note that except in a few places like Brazil, we are not converting waste products into ethanol, but editable grain that could be used to feed people or the animals that people eat (which provide valuable protein).

As usual, this is resulting in a crisis for the poor of the world, which already face many problems: poverty, hunger, lack of potable water, oppression, and disease. Now the industrialized countries are using food to make fuel, worsening an already bad situation for the world’s poor. All so we Americans can drive around in gas guzzling SUVs and pickup trucks. How selfish!

I recently read the following on this subject:

Sometimes the trade-off is stark: filling the tank of an SUV with ethanol requires enough corn to feed a person for a year. But not all biofuels are bad; making ethanol from Brazilian sugar cane is vastly more efficient than making it from US-grown corn, for example, and green technology for making fuel from waste is improving rapidly.

The problem is that the EU and the US have set targets for increasing the use of biofuels without sorting the good from the bad. As a result, rainforests are being cleared in Indonesia to grow palm oil for European biodiesel refineries, and global grain reserves are running dangerously low. Meanwhile, rich-country politicians can look “green” without asking their citizens to conserve energy, and agribusiness giants are cashing in. And if nothing changes, the situation will only get worse.

What’s needed are strong global standards that encourage better biofuels and shut down the trade in bad ones. Such standards are under development by a number of coalitions, but they will only become mandatory if there’s a big enough public outcry. It’s time to move: this Friday through Saturday, the twenty countries with the biggest economies, responsible for more than 75% of the world’s carbon emissions, will meet in Chiba, Japan to begin the G8’s climate change discussions. Before the summit, let’s raise a global cry for change on biofuels.

A call for change before this week’s summit won’t end the food crisis, or stop global warming. But it’s a critical first step. By confronting false solutions and demanding real ones, we can show our leaders that we want to do the right thing, not the easy thing. It’s time to put the life of our fellow people, and our planet, above the politics and profits that all too often drive international decision-making. This will be a long fight. But it’s one that we join eagerly--because the stakes are too high to do anything else.

(quoted from an e-newsletter put out by advocacy group

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