Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

Biodiesel a key part of a smart, green policy for Western Canada

with 5 comments

On the opinion page this morning Ian Thomson, president of both the B.C. and the Alberta Biodiesel Associations, makes the case for the province’s plan for renewable fuels to comprise five per cent of all diesel and gasoline sold in B.C. by 2010.

He notes that elsewhere governments are having second thoughts about this type of commitment, mainly due to the undeniable crisis in food shortages and high prices. Mr Thompson says that their analysis is “simplistic”

global food price increases are the result of a complex mix of factors, including supply and demand, trade policy, tariffs, political instability, and global energy costs.

Which while true neatly avoids the explanation that demand for some crops, and for more land, to supply the demands for biofuels is one of the big changes recently. The link between corn prices and the demand for ethanol in the US as a fuel additive is directly linked to the high prices of corn products in Mexico. That is an old story. But still true. The wider impacts of the demand for palm oil and clearance of forests has also been around for a while. As has the calculation that some biofuels can take more energy to produce than they provide, and the consequences of current farming practice results in an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

This is not to say that all biofuels are evil. They could be created from waste products. There is a lot of used frying oil out there that could be recycled this way. A lot of yellow grease that is currently exported as unfit for human consumption here – that probably ends up being eaten by very poor people in third world countries. I do not know if we are doing them any favours with that trade, but somebody is making a lot of money out of our care and other’s neglect of standards of cleanliness. Forest products could probably produce ethanol – but currently it is foodgrains that are used, not switch grass, straw or sawdust.

And even if he is right, which seems to me unlikely but we will let his case stand for the sake of argument, the needs of hungry humans should override those of the automotive business. That means right now we have to back off legislated biofuel mandates until we can get this market stabilised, and concentrate on getting people fed, not SUVs producing a little less ghg.

Because the other feature of biofuels is we are currently treating them as a way to carry on behaving as we have done. Just like the use of hybrid drives on huge trucks that are only single occupant passenger vehicles, and whose only freight hauling role is some bags of groceries, or some 2x4s for a rare home improvement project. We need above all to reduce the number of vehicle kilometres travelled as that is what is driving up the demand for fuel – despite improvements in vehicle efficiency and fuel standards. We keep building freeways and low density, unwalkable suburbs. Poor people around the world should not be expected to pay for our self indulgence or refusal to face facts.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 24, 2008 at 8:50 am

5 Responses

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  1. In the same edition of the paper, you can find the following headlines:
    Soaring wheat prices squeeze poverty-stricken Afghans
    Fuel crops drive price hikes in Latin America

    And on the website,
    Thai rice hits new record, feeding food fears


    April 24, 2008 at 9:52 am

  2. And the media have been full of similar stories for some time including food riots and a new wave of boat people from Haiti

    Stephen Rees

    April 24, 2008 at 10:19 am

  3. An idiot with immense power (whose initials are GWB) caused a goodly portion of the world-wide trouble with food prices. Let’s hope after the November US election someone else with a normal brain and better advisors first corrects the problems, attempts to repair the damage, and moves on to more aopropriate policies.


    April 24, 2008 at 7:49 pm

  4. Conservatives and Liberals support mandatory biofuels, ostensibly for energy security. Better they mandate energy efficiency for homes and appliances first. Reduce demand enough and we won’t have to import any petroleum.


    May 1, 2008 at 8:48 am

  5. Excellent point, Sungsu. It’s been said for a decade now that conservation is the most economical solution.


    May 2, 2008 at 4:13 pm

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