Stephen Rees's blog

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

Posts Tagged ‘biofuels

Canada’s biofuel mandate

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Bill C-33 would allow the government to ensure all gasoline produced for domestic consumption has an average renewable fuel content of five per cent by 2010 and that diesel and heating oil have an average renewable fuel content of two per cent by 2012. The motion, carried by a vote of 173 to 64, must be debated in the Senate before passing into law.

It’s the size of the majority that bothers me. And the Senate is unlikely to do be much different.

There are 20 biofuel plants in operation or under construction in Canada, which will use more than a million tonnes of wheat and nearly 2.5 million tonnes of corn annually.

And, of course, the people who are most pleased about this are not even mentioned. Canada’s farmers. Rural votes have always been much more valuable than urban votes, and though farmers are doing well now that is a bit of a change form previous years. And there is the continuing power of myth – that Canada is mostly rural and agricultural.

On the other hand we also know what the US ethanol mandate has done to distort grain prices, and controversial role it has been playing in its contribution to world hunger and high food prices. The obscenity of fat Americans filling their gargantuan SUVs while poor little kids go hungry has a “made for tv” quality about it that the ethanol lobby spin doctors have not been able to erase.

Mostly, for me, it is the dubious science. There is little doubt in my mind that in the full cycle analysis which includes the impact of fertilisers and the use of fuel to farm, transport and process the crop that the claimed savings in ghg emissions are at best overstated, and at worse the reverse of the truth.

I would like to blame the Conservatives but obviously I can’t. The lobbyists have worked both sides of the house successfully. Renewables would be a good idea if we had a source that was based on what is otherwise a waste product – which can be the case for both ethanol and biodiesel but at present, isn’t. Corn and wheat are food crops. There is plenty of woodwaste and straw – and land that could grow switch grass that would not support food crops. But there are no industrial sized plants producing cellulosic ethanol. It would be nice to think that Mr Harper might hold off on the implementation of this Bill until there is, but it seems extremely unlikely.

UPDATE May 30 Another UN report

Written by Stephen Rees

May 29, 2008 at 10:18 am

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

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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

UN chief calls for review of biofuels policy

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The UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, has called for a comprehensive review of the policy on biofuels as a crisis in global food prices – partly caused by the increasing use of crops for energy generation – threatens to trigger global instability.

It is also becoming noticeable here as the price of rice and pasta have been rising. Of course in wealthy countries like ours it is unlikely to cause widespread social upheaval. The article also notes that the environmental benefits of some biofuels seem to have been overestimated.

Biofuels, hybrids and electric cars are not the solution but could be a useful transition mechanism. Sadly, too many see them as a way to keep on trucking. We do not seem to be able to comprehend the extent of the change that is going to have to happen – here – now.

Written by Stephen Rees

April 5, 2008 at 11:14 am