Wednesday, April 16, 2008

What If...Biofuels Harm the Environment?

Yeah, I know, I already posted a What If :D But I had a little down time before I had to get to work and this subject really spoke to me. I've been in favor of less Earth impact since my teens (we only have the one planet, after all) and try not to do more damage than necessary. At first, I thought, hey, biofuel -- what a great concept! But then I started hearing alternative thoughts and theories. Now, I'm not so sure.

I've been seeing stories about biofuel and its impact on the world's food production. According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, world grain stocks have fallen to a 25 year low of 5 million tons, which is claimed to be barely enough rations for eight to 12 weeks. This year the U.S. will divert 18 percent of its grain output for ethanol production to break dependency on oil imports.

It's interesting because I've heard reports that biofuel, particularly those produced from grains, don't reduce dependence on foreign oil and can actually be more harmful to the environment than the fossil fuels they would replace.

Scientists have questioned the sustainability of biofuels, warning that by increasing deforestation for crops, the energy source may be contributing to global warming.

John Beddington, England's current chief scientific adviser, has expressed skepticism about biofuels. At a speech in Westminster, he said demand for biofuels from the U.S. had delivered a "major shock" to world agriculture, which was raising food prices globally. "There are real problems with the unsustainability of biofuels." He added that cutting down rain forests to grow these crops was "profoundly stupid".

But even worse is that I've heard that turning plants such as corn, soybeans and sunflowers into fuel uses more energy than the resulting ethanol or biodiesel generates. For example, corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy to raise, harvest and convert than the fuel produced from it.

So maybe biofuel isn't the way to go. We definitely don't want to cut down rain forests or contribute to the starvation in third world countries. And if the production of biofuel exceeds its cost-benefit ratio, what's the point?

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