- Over the past two years I have made an
uncomfortable discovery. Like most environmentalists, I have been
as blind to the constraints affecting our energy supply as my opponents
have been to climate change. I now realise that I have entertained a belief
- In 2003, the biologist Jeffrey Dukes
calculated that the fossil fuels we burn in one year were made from organic
matter "containing 44x10 to the 18 grams of carbon, which is
more than 400 times the net primary productivity of the planet's
current biota."(1) In plain English, this means that every year
we use four centuries' worth of plants and animals.
- The idea that we can simply replace this
fossil legacy - and the extraordinary power densities it gives us - with
ambient energy is the stuff of science fiction. There is simply no
substitute for cutting back. But substitutes are being sought everywhere.
They are being promoted today at the climate talks in Montreal, by
states - such as ours - which seek to avoid the hard decisions climate
change demands. And at least one of them is worse than the fossil
fuel burning it replaces.
- The last time I drew attention to the
hazards of making diesel fuel from vegetable oils, I received as much abuse
as I have ever been sent by the supporters of the Iraq war. The biodiesel
missionaries, I discovered, are as vociferous in their denial as
the executives of Exxon. I am now prepared to admit that my previous
column was wrong. But they're not going to like it. I was wrong because
I underestimated the fuel's destructive impact.
- Before I go any further, I should make
it clear that turning used chip fat into motor fuel is a good thing.
The people slithering around all day in vats of filth are perfoming a service
to society. But there is enough waste cooking oil in the UK to meet
one 380th of our demand for road transport fuel(2). Beyond that, the trouble
- When I wrote about it last year, I thought
that the biggest problem caused by biodiesel was that it set up a
competition for land(3). Arable land that would otherwise have been
used to grow food would instead be used to grow fuel. But now I find
that something even worse is happening. The biodiesel industry has
accidentally invented the world's most carbon-intensive fuel.
- In promoting biodiesel - as the European
Union, the British and US governments and thousands of environmental campaigners
do - you might imagine that you are creating a market for old chip fat,
or rapeseed oil, or oil from algae grown in desert ponds. In reality
you are creating a market for the most destructive crop on earth.
- Last week, the chairman of Malaysia's
Federal Land Development Authority announced that he was about to build
a new biodiesel plant(4). His was the ninth such decision in four
months. Four new refineries are being built in Peninsula Malaysia,
one in Sarawak and two in Rotterdam(5). Two foreign consortia - one German,
one American - are setting up rival plants in Singapore(6). All of them
will be making biodiesel from the same source: oil from palm trees.
- "The demand for biodiesel,"
the Malaysian Star reports, "will come from the European Community....
This fresh demand...would, at the very least, take up most of Malaysia's
crude palm oil inventories"(7). Why? Because it's cheaper than
biodiesel made from any other crop.
- In September, Friends of the Earth published
a report about the impacts of palm oil production. "Between
1985 and 2000," it found, "the development of oil-palm
plantations was responsible for an estimated 87 per cent of deforestation
in Malaysia"(8). In Sumatra and Borneo, some 4 million hectares of
forest has been converted to palm farms. Now a further 6 million
hectares is scheduled for clearance in Malaysia, and 16.5m in Indonesia.
- Almost all the remaining forest is at
risk. Even the famous Tanjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan
is being ripped apart by oil planters. The orang-utan is likely to become
extinct in the wild. Sumatran rhinos, tigers, gibbons, tapirs, proboscis
monkeys and thousands of other species could go the same way. Thousands
of indigenous people have been evicted from their lands, and some
500 Indonesians have been tortured when they tried to resist(9). The forest
fires which every so often smother the region in smog are mostly
started by the palm growers. The entire region is being turned into
a gigantic vegetable oil field.
- Before oil palms, which are small and
scrubby, are planted, vast forest trees, containing a much greater store
of carbon, must be felled and burnt. Having used up the drier lands,
the plantations are now moving into the swamp forests, which grow on peat.
When they've cut the trees, the planters drain the ground. As the
peat dries it oxidises, releasing even more carbon dioxide than the
trees. In terms of its impact on both the local and global environments,
palm biodiesel is more destructive than crude oil from Nigeria.
- The British government understands this.
In the report it published last month, when it announced that it will obey
the European Union and ensure that 5.75% of our transport fuel comes from
plants by 2010, it admitted that "the main environmental risks
are likely to be those concerning any large expansion in biofuel
feedstock production, and particularly in Brazil (for sugar cane)
and South East Asia (for palm oil plantations)."(10) It suggested
that the best means of dealing with the problem was to prevent environmentally
destructive fuels from being imported. The government asked its consultants
whether a ban would infringe world trade rules. The answer was yes:
"mandatory environmental criteria...would greatly increase the
risk of international legal challenge to the policy as a whole"(11).
So it dropped the idea of banning imports, and called for "some form
of voluntary scheme" instead(12). Knowing that the creation
of this market will lead to a massive surge in imports of palm oil,
knowing that there is nothing meaningful it can do to prevent them, and
knowing that they will accelarate rather than ameliorate climate
change, the government has decided to go ahead anyway.
- At other times it happily defies the
European Union. But what the EU wants and what the government wants
are the same. "It is essential that we balance the increasing
demand for travel," the government's report says, "with
our goals for protecting the environment"(13). Until recently, we
had a policy of reducing the demand for travel. Now, though no announcement
has been made, that policy has gone. Like the Tories in the early 1990s,
the Labour administration seeks to accommodate demand, however high
it rises. Figures obtained last week by the campaigning group Road
Block show that for the widening of the M1 alone the government will pay
£3.6 billion - more than it is spending on its entire climate
change programme(14). Instead of attempting to reduce demand, it is trying
to alter supply. It is prepared to sacrifice the South East Asian
rainforests in order to be seen to do something, and to allow motorists
to feel better about themselves.
- All this illustrates the futility of
the technofixes now being pursued in Montreal. Trying to meet a rising
demand for fuel is madness, wherever the fuel might come from. The
hard decisions have been avoided, and another portion of the biosphere
is going up in smoke.
- 1. Jeffrey S. Dukes, 2003. Burning Buried
Sunshine: Human Consumption Of Ancient Solar Energy. Climatic Change 61:
- 2. The British Association for Biofuels
and Oils estimates the volume at 100,000 tonnes a year. BABFO , no date.
Memorandum to the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution. http://www.biodiesel.co.uk/press_release/
- 3. http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2004/11/23/feeding-cars-not-people/
- 4. Tamimi Omar, 1st December 2005. Felda
to set up largest biodiesel plant. The Edge Daily. http://www.theedgedaily.com/cms/content.jsp?
- 5. See e.g. Zaidi Isham Ismail, 7th November
2005. IOI to go it alone on first biodiesel plant. http://www.btimes.com.my/Current_News/BT/Monday/Frontpage/
20051107000223/Art icle/; No author, 25th November 2005. GHope nine-month
profit hits RM841mil. http://biz.thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2005/11/25/business/
12693859& sec=business; No author, 26th November 2005. GHope to invest
RM40mil for biodiesel plant in Netherlands. http://biz.thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2005/11/26/business/
12704187& sec=business; No author, 23rd November 2005. Malaysia IOI
Eyes Green Energy Expansion in Europe. http://www.planetark.com/dailynewsstory.cfm/newsid/33622/story.htm
- 6. Loh Kim Chin, 26th October 2005. Singapore
to host two biodiesel plants, investments total over S$80m. Channel
- 7. C.S. Tan, 6th October 2005. All Plantation
Stocks Rally. http://biz.thestar.com.my/news/story.asp?file=/2005/10/6/business/
- 8. Friends of the Earth et al, September
2005. The Oil for Ape Scandal: how palm oil is threatening orang-utan
survival. Research report. www.foe.co.uk/resource/reports/oil_for_ape_full.pdf
- 9. ibid.
- 10. Department for Transport, November
2005. Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) feasibility report. http://www.dft.gov.uk/stellent/groups/dft_roads/documents/page/
- 11. E4Tech, ECCM and Imperial College,
London, June 2005. Feasibility Study on Certification for a Renewable
Transport Fuel Obligation. Final Report.
- 12. Department for Transport, ibid.
- 13. ibid.
- craig reece wrote:
- Hi Gray,
- At the risk of destroying your wish that
we could all just get along, I have to say that I agree that
the law of unintended consequences would seem to be at play
here, and that he's right about oil palm. It is indeed very
high yielding - something on the order of 655 gallons per acre,
as contrasted with soy at 49 and Canola at 130 (and Jatropha
at 208-500) but it is apparently causing widespread destruction of
tropical rain forests.
- Algae can yield up to 15,000 gallons/acre,
so one hopes that it will someday be replacing oil palm, soy
- Craig Reece http://www.PlantDrive.com
- John Faunce wrote:
- Why does this occur as "a load of
crap"? Seems relavent to "our " cause. Perhaps Rudolph Diesel's
vision for meeting 3rd world energy needs is being realized; and
the the vision was not fully developed. Remember nuclear power. Its proponents
stated that the cost of putting energy use meters on homes could
not be justified as the cost of power would be so low. Certainly
we could take a look at our responsibility in promoting this "great"
source (veg.oil) of energy.
- Gretchen Zimmermann wrote:
- I think we need to take Monbidiot seriously.
Granted his aggressive language makes the message hard to take, but
it is an important message. I wish I could be convinced that it is
a load of crap.
- In my position as fuel buyer and email
answerer at BioFuel Oasis I'm seeing lots of email from Malaysia
offering us palm oil biodiesel. I also got to see the frantic interest
in biodiesel that popped up in the weeks after Katrina, mostly from
people looking for cheaper fuel. A lot of people who don't
give a damn about the environment are jumping on this band wagon
in the hopes of making a bunch of money. What is going to stop
them from selling irresponsibly produced fuel? What is going to stop
somebody who needs to get to work to feed his family from using it?
- The scarcity of the quality recycled
fuel we thought we'd be selling at this stage is depressing. As fuel
buyer I'm feeling the pressure of growing demand to get more fuel
cheaper. From a purely business perspective we should be brokering
rail cars of virgin GMO soy biodiesel to meet that demand. We're
resisting that temptation at the Oasis and always on the lookout
for better sources, but there are lots of Eel rivers and World
Energies out there who don't care
- I fear that in focusing on the virtues
of biodiesel we've forgotten to spread the message of how important
conservation is. I'm seeing a lot of new customers come in all enthused
and happy about switching to biodiesel. It gives them a warm, fuzzy
feeling but I fear that many of them are not doing much else to change
their lifestyles to reduce their footprint. I sometimes wonder if
using biodiesel gives people an exaggerated sense of accomplishment
that allows them to forget or ignore other more important lifestyle
- I'm surprised by the number of people
who ask me when biodiesel will get cheaper. We'll see little fluctuations
in the price but in reality, as the petroleum supply dwindles, everything
can only get more expensive. Increased demand for biodiesel will
raise, not lower the price because supply will not be able to keep
up. The fact that many of our customers don't understand this shows
me that we've failed to get the truly important messages across.
I plan to post something about the need for conservation
on our web site, once I edit out the gloom and get approval from
my fellow devas.
- Craig, you weren't at the sustainable
biodiesel summit in San Diego. Shane Tyson gave a very convincing
presentation about why algae is not a viable feedstock for biodiesel.
The variety of algae that produces high yields of oil is genetically
engineered. It does not compete well with native species of algae
so constant tending is required to keep it from being killed off.
It is no doubt possible to engineer a more robust oil producing algae
variety, but that would be the worst kind of GMO imaginable. It would
be disastrous if it got into the environment, edged out native algae
species, and the critters at the bottom of the food chain fond it
- Consider that it took Earth millions
of years to compress plant matter from ancient rainforests into crude
oil. We've used about half of these reserves in about 100 years,
and our consumption is increasing exponentially. We're not going
to come close to replacing current consumption with biological matter
of any kind. Monbidiot's quote that every year we use four centuries'
worth of plants and animals supports that. Of course that is
not a reason not to use responsibly produced biodiesel (and ethanol),
but it is a clear reminder that our primary focus needs to be on
- The problem is the momentum of the rate
we (Eathlings) are using energy. Even as there is a movement to reduce
our usage in some places, consumption is growing at an alarming rate
in India and China. No to mention GM's unclear-on-the-concept promotion
of corn ethanol to fuel their oversized flex fuel trucks. I don't
see anything from stopping people from framing every arable acre
of land on the planet in a desperate attempt to meet demand.
- Thanks for reading all of that. I am
perplexed as the next. These are age old problems that I have seen
for the better part of my adult life. Great ideas, great things,
get hi-jacked by greedy capitalists for there own money grubbing
purposes without any consideration for the long term/indirect costs
of their actions. As far as I can tell, it's the same short sightedness
that the big oil companies have displayed for 100 years.
- This is a good example of why I am more
interested in researching power solutions for BRC other than simply
using Biodiesel in the generators. And this is why we need to put
our heads together and come up with a plan that has us cutting back
on our power usage in BRC and conserving.
- Thanks & Peace,