The biofuel controversy is about shades of green. There are no black and white answers as to whether biofuel is a good thing or a bad thing for environmentalists. A chart published by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer analysed biofuel feed-stocks in terms of the good, the bad or the really ugly from an environmental point of view, arguing biofuel could be part of the solution or part of the problem, depending on how it was produced. (Science & Technology 15.10.08).
Sunita Narain, Director of the Centre for Science and the Environment argues biofuel is a good idea which can be bad in practice, taking us out of the frying pan and into the fire. (16.07.10).
Why do Indonesian anti-biofuel environmentalists agree? First, they argue that expansion of CPO (crude palm oil) for biofuel will destroy wetlands and forests. Second, they argue biofuel production may cause more emissions than it saves by its use. Third, socio-environmentalists argue that CPO-based biofuels (and others) compete with the food-chain and could disrupt food supply to the world’s poor, as when US corn subsidies for ethanol hit food prices in Mexico.
On the other hand, the CPO lobby say there’s plenty of land for CPO without harming wetlands or forests, and point out most Indonesian CPO producers are small farmers contributing their little bit to a big crop, rather than big producers.
Biofuel proponents also argue that even first generation feedstock can produce biofuel that is socially and economically viable.
Certainly it seems jatropha and cassava can be used to produce biodiesel and bioethanol. Also that existing sugar-cane can be used to produce ethanol viably, as Brazil has showed. But Brazil has lots of land, large sugar plantations and put huge efforts into bioethanol from sugar cane.
The lesson of Brazil and of countries with modest plantations and less comparative advantage, like Colombia and Jamaica, is that ethanol can work commercially, providing at least up to ten percent of the national petrol mix, based on existing technologies and vehicle fleets.
The percentage of mix can only move slowly upward in step with global changes in vehicle fleets because old cars with carburetors cannot easily cope with more than a ten percent mix. The Brazilians and others were tough on this and simply pushed older vehicles out of the market.
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