Ethanol: More harm than good?

It’s a complicated issue to be sure and there and the one thing that you can be certain about here in the 21st century is that anyone who shows up on your doorstep with a simple solution to any of the complex problems we face today need the door slammed in their face.

Take this article on NPR about Ethanol and Global Warming; If you look at biofuels in the light of the study done by Tim searchinger at Princton we need to go back and rethink our biofuels strategy.

“The simplest explanation is that when we divert our corn or soybeans to fuel, if people around the world are going to continue to eat the same amount that they’re already eating, you have to replace that food somewhere else,” Searchinger says.

What the study actually shows, rather than a clean cut this is bad, that is worse; if we keep going at the rate we are going, using the same technologies we are using for the next 30 years we are going to wind up with the net effect of doubling the overall CO2.

But it’s not that simple. We aren’t at full capacity yet; not all the farmland we have available is being used to plant anything. Since the fall of the USSR we haven’t been planting as much land as we could. Tobacco lands are being used for growing Canola oil (Rapeseed oil, in other words) for use as fuel and few would argue that that’s a bad thing; certainly it isn’t producing more C02. The shortage we have been experiencing and the reactions to it are more growing pains than long term effects.

What is vital to keep in mind is that ethanol and biodiesel are stopgap measures at best. If we are still using huge amounts of ethanol or biodiesel in 30 years, or even in 15 years something is terribly wrong. Biofuels are a way for us to wean ourselves off of the internal combustion engine while finalize solar and wind and perhaps safer nuclear plants and cars that can be effectively powered by them. The much smaller number of remaining internal combustion powered cars will not put a huge dent in the farmland production especially when you factor in garbage to biodiesel, air to biodiesel, and plants that will grow in places crops won’t.

While I agree with some of their conclusions, such as how we should be looking towards other than crop sources sooner than later, I can’t agree with the level of urgency that they deliver that message with.