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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Following in Europe's Footsteps (2)

A couple of weeks ago we discussed following too closely in the EU's footsteps with regard to energy policy. That conversation addressed power generation policy for the most part. I thought you might be interested in another facet of the same problem relative to biofuel production, that appeared in a couple of European articles during the past week.

First was an article entitled "Growing pressure to change EU biofuel policy" from It begins...
"Powering cars with plants once seemed like an unstoppable idea. Biofuel was sold as a way to reduce Europe's oil dependency on autocratic regimes, meet climate-change targets and help Europe's struggling farmers. But since the European Union agreed laws to promote biofuel, doubts have sprouted like weeds. Now it looks increasingly likely that the EU will have to rewrite bioenergy laws to guard against their unintended consequences.   
The problem that early biofuel enthusiasts did not anticipate was that every change in the natural world has a ripple effect somewhere else."

Those pesky "unintended consequences". The article goes on to enumerate them: declining availability and increasing prices for food supplies, unexpected land use changes in other countries in response to global markets, worse-than-expected impacts on carbon emissions and other environmental metrics, etc. Oh, and by the way, the arbitrary goals optimistically set back in 2000 had to be cut in half in 2007, and even now look laughable.

How did this happen? Just a couple of short years ago, one could find articles (for instance, here, here, and here all over the internet singing the praises of biofuel efforts in the EU. Rapeseed had become the European version of the soybean...except that its primary use was now for bio-diesel, instead of canola oil. And the bio-ethanol that was being produced was driving up corn and grain prices all over the continent. Sound familiar?

But at least it was helping the EU meet its carbon emission goals, right?

Unfortunately, no. More unintended consequences. In "Carbon accounting system is mad as a hatter" published Sunday in the Guardian (UK), the author states that
"latest figures reveal that the UK's CO2 emissions didn't fall by 28m tonnes between 1990 and 2008 at all, as the official record indicates, but rose by a substantial 100m tonnes. Rich country emissions went up 12% over the period when hidden, traded emissions are included, and anomalies such as Russia, whose economy collapsed in the early 1990s, are left out."
And that these numbers are the result of 
"... a faulty accounting system [that] creates a kind of Alice in Climate Wonderland world in which up is down, the wrong people take the blame and the kingdom is never put in order."
Don't worry, the EU bodies recognize these issues and are taking swift action. From the first article:
" seems that 2011 will be the turning point when the EU acts to constrain indirect emissions."
OK, now they'll get it right. The bodies that couldn't meet their goals of reducing direct emissions from their own factories and autos are now going to focus on constraining "indirect emissions", that is, emissions produced in some other country as a result of EU citizens' purchasing habits. No unintended consequences there.

What can we learn from the experiences of our European carbon pioneers?

Instead of driving us all to a pre-determined goal of bio-fuel powered transportation, without any real understanding of, or market constraints on, natural resource impacts, why not concede that oil will and should be utilized as some component of our overall energy strategy? Why penalize existing technologies and industries in the process of promoting others?

Why not take advantage of the fact that the best use of this liquid gold, for its energy density and hundred-year in-place infrastructure, is in powering the internal combustion engines of our automobiles, trucks, trains, and aircraft? At least until transportation scientists invent biofuel, hydrogen, or electronic technology that delivers more value for the transportation dollar.

There appears to be commercial opportunity in cellulosic ethanol, at least here in North America, and private companies are pursuing it. So even though biomass is most efficiently utilized in heating applications, let's encourage current initiatives with appropriate tax advantages (as we already are) that encourage more private sector investment, and ramp up the research funding if we're really serious about alternative fuels.

In the mean time, during the decades of transition to new technologies, we can get more energy value from our available biomass in other more practical uses. But every potential increase in utilization of biomass involves development of the supply chain. Let's focus our future national conversations on that for a change...and let's quit shutting down productive American energy producing companies just because they're not politically correct.

That kind of thinking is wreaking havoc on the economies of the EU. Let's not follow their footsteps in that respect.

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