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From The Socialist newspaper, 2 April 2008

The devastating effects of biofuels

Heavily promoted by Bush and Blair as a carbon neutral alternative to fossil fuels, biofuels are now being questioned over their environmental impact on rain forests and on food supplies. Huge tracts of rainforest are being cleared to produce biofuels and millions of poor people are suffering from switching land use from food crops to biofuels. Leah Jones exposes the limitations of this 'green alternative'.

The push to be eco-friendly has prompted many companies and governments to research and invest in biofuels. Biofuel generally refers to liquid and gaseous fuels produced from biomass, the classic example of which is wood, but the biomass can be any combustible organic material. Many crops can be and are grown especially for this purpose, for example: soybeans, corn, wheat, rapeseed, sugar beet and sugar cane. All sorts of industrial wastes can be used too, providing they are biodegradable, such as timber, manure, food waste and sewage.

Biofuels classify as renewable energy as the things they are made of can easily be re-created; trees and crops can be regrown, biodegradable waste piles up all the time. Biofuels are also potentially eco-friendly because they work within the carbon cycle. The organic material they are produced from takes in carbon from the atmosphere when it is growing. The carbon produced when biofuels are burnt then replaces the carbon taken, so does not add to greenhouse gas emissions.

Biofuels have always been around in human society. During industrialisation, many of the inventions which have shaped the modern world were originally conceived to be powered by biofuels, for example, electricity generators and the combustion engine. Interest in biofuels has tended to wax and wane however, with less interest expressed during periods when there has been ready access to cheap fossil fuels.

Most cars produced since 1988 can run on a fuel composed of up to 20% biofuel. Generally this is something like ethanol (produced from organic sugars) or refined rapeseed oil. With minimal modifications most cars can run on a mix containing up to 85% biofuel.

Some companies have used biofuel in this way to appear to be more environmentally friendly. McDonald's for example, has implemented a programme to convert all their vehicles to run on increased amounts of biofuels and plans to use the oil from their fryers to make this fuel. How much effect this will have in reducing the company's emissions depends partly on how much extra carbon is produced in using more vans to collect the waste oil and take it to a central depot, and then distribute it back to the stations where it will actually be used.

Also, as the process of refining biofuels is usually powered using fossil fuels, this conversion process, even when not taking into account transportation, can negate the carbon benefits of making the biofuel.

Greenhouse gases

It is also worth noting that with modern farming techniques, when growing biofuel crops and trees, a significant amount of carbon is produced from agricultural machinery and the manufacture of fertilisers and pesticides. These chemicals also bring their own problems, including emitting many chemicals which are themselves greenhouse gases. Fertilisers contain nitrogen which, as well as being a component of a greenhouse gas, also destroys atmospheric ozone. This creates even bigger problems.

All that being said, however, tests have shown that first generation biofuels can save up to 60% in carbon emissions and second generation (sewage etc.) can save up to 80%.

One major problem though is that the former will only produce a 60% saving in carbon emissions when the land used to grown them would otherwise be concrete or desert. Even using previously fallow land for growing crops for biofuels can reduce the amount of carbon saved, by destroying stores of carbon in the soil.

BBC programme Top Gear, in a bid to show green credentials, attempted to grow their own oil seed rape in order to create bio-diesel. The main problem they encountered was that using a piece of land measuring almost a square hectare, they would be able to produce enough fuel to fill a standard car tank once. Similar problems abound with other crops used to create bio-diesel; the amount of maize needed to fill an 'urban assault vehicle' could feed a family of four for three months.

To produce first generation biofuels for a national programme would need an alarming amount of land. Tropical forest is being cleared for biofuel crops in developing countries which in itself has a huge adverse effect on carbon levels in our atmosphere. Not only is a massive carbon trap destroyed, but large amounts of methane can also be released from the soil. The cleared area can become 'infertile' in less than one year, facilitating the need for more artificial fertiliser, further damaging the soil and atmosphere.

Giving over huge swathes of the world's most fertile farm land to the production of biofuel is having devastating effects. In one year, the production of bio-diesel is estimated to have increased worldwide food prices by 5.9%.

Investment into this supposedly 'green' energy source in the US - 20% of US corn production is now for biofuels - has contributed to worldwide shortages of corn and pushed up the prices of corn and other staple foods such as wheat, barley, sugar and soy beans. These foodstuffs are not only consumables in their own right but also are extensively used in the production of meat, dairy products, bread, sugar and beer.

Food price protests

2008 has already seen mass protests over food prices in Indonesia following in the wake of similar protests in Mexico, China, Morocco, West Bengal, Senegal and Yemen, which occurred in the second half of 2007. Prices are set to rise further over the coming year.

Biomass is one of humankind's most important fuels. It has been used sustainably by many different peoples throughout our history and in many areas could be used sustainably today if the motives were: making the best use of the world's natural resources, protecting the environment and promoting the needs of ordinary people. However, it is in the nature of the capitalist system to exploit every resource as much as possible with minimal regard for the environmental consequences.

While there is profit to be made out of appearing 'green', then biofuels will be created in a damaging way, regardless of the effect this has on workers across the world or on the world itself. Only socialist societies, without the profit motive and with democratic economic planning of all resources and production, could make good use of biofuels and develop all the other renewable sources of power - such as solar, wind and tidal - for the benefit of us all.

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In The Socialist 2 April 2008:

End Labour's 'them and us' society

Capitalism gambles with our lives

Editorial: For a 35-hour week with no loss of pay

Socialist Party campaigns

Victory shows campaigning can save out NHS!

"Halve your expenses and save our post offices"


The devastating effects of biofuels

Airports: Expanding profits at our expense

Socialist Students

ID cards: No to students being used as guinea pigs!

National Union of Students rejects constitutional changes

Workplace news and analysis

Fight back against the Unison witch-hunt!

Jaguar/Land Rover: Uncertain future for workers

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Shelter staff ask for support

NUJ Members fight attacks on jobs and conditions

Teachers vote to strike

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Marxist analysis: history

1848: year of revolution

International socialist news and analysis

USA elections: Break with the two parties of big business!

Kazakhstan socialist jailed for protesting

Socialist Party review

From Russia: French and Russian master paintings 1870-1925 from Moscow and St Petersburg


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