Yesterday another prominent businessman, who I admire greatly, has weighed in on the potential of biofuels. In a presentation delivered at a forum hosted by the World Trade Organization, Ted Turner said “biofuels could do more than fight problems like pollution and global warming. They can also provide wealthy countries a means of keeping their farmers in business, instead of subsidizing products that can be grown more cheaply in poor countries, products like cotton, sugar beets, sugar cane and rice.”
Turner has a good point. Wealthy countries with ample farmland that is already in service can grow biofuel instead of food. Because the land is already being used as farmland, there is no pressure to deforest. Because the farmers are already being paid subsidies to keep land out of production, these subsidies can be redirected towards encouraging biofuel production. In this manner, even a biofuel crop of marginal economic viability can improve a wealthy nation’s energy security while remaining “tax neutral.”
It is in the developing countries that encouraging biofuel plantings is more problematic. As we point out in an earlier post “Deforestation Diesel,” planting biofuels is crowding out food production in countries where prices of food are already too high. Planting biofuels is also encouraging deforestation, since now there are two reasons, food and fuel, for taking down trees and planting crops. Moreover, planting biofuels will lead to desertification, since much of the topsoil in the tropics is very thin and deteriorates quickly when the tree canopy is removed.
To replace all energy used on earth with biofuel would require 10 million square miles of land, on a planet with only 5 million square miles of arable farmland. See proof for these figures in “Biofuel vs. Photovoltaics.” For this reason, as long as growing biofuel is profitable, and in many parts of the world it is very profitable, the pressures to deforest will be more compelling than ever.
Those who believe we need to manage atmospheric CO2 to manage global warming should be especially concerned. So what if biofuel is “carbon neutral” if producing it requires stripping the earth of even more forest canopy and contributing to the spread of deserts? More forests (cool and CO2 sponges) cool the planet, and more deserts (hot and no CO2 absorption) warm the planet. Their impact very likely dwarfs any advantage we may get from burning biofuel instead of petroleum. At the least, these trade-offs need to be evaluated.
This is the message that is currently lost on biofuel proponents: Biofuel should be grown on existing farmland in developing countries and on land that is already desertified – or in factories. Anywhere else ought to be subject to careful cost/benefit analysis. Biofuel is a promising source of supplemental fuel. Biofuel using factory farming techniques may become more than just a supplemental fuel, read “Factory Farmed Algae for Biofuel.” But in our exhuberance for biofuels let us not forget the forest for the fuel.