Lomborg Again

This time I must admit, I agree with the general message of the new article by Bjørn Lomborg, whom I normally am rather critical about (see here and here). In “A Race to Hunger” he is commenting on the recent boom in the so called biofuels, using the example of the US.

What is the problem with biofuels? Despite some imperfections in his argumentation, Mr Lomborg is generally right – while there is the claim from politicians especially that biofuels are an important contributor to the transition to a “emissions free” world, there are many reasons to reject this idea.

What are biofuels actually?, one may ask. There are a lot of them, the most important ones for the discussion of Lomborg’s text being ethanol (mainly from corn) and diverse fuels made of vegetable oils (especially rape), e.g. biodiesel.

Many politicians in the US, in Europe, but in the developing world as well (in Brazil most cars use biofuels) claim that the use of biofuels in cars is going to make the transportation sector “emissions free”. Of course, through the combustion of these fuels carbon dioxide is emitted – but since the plants they are made of would have degraded anyway, there are no “additional” emissions. Strange as it may sound, it is true – in general. But there are problems with biofuels, which undo the benefit mentioned above.

First, the ecological balance of biofuels would be “neutral” only if the plants for its production would be grown sustainably – especially without chemical fertilizers (the main source of emissions of nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas) and not in monocultures (which degrade soils and require the appliance of pesticides). I assume that no forests are cut for their growing – this would straightforwardly not be “climate neutral”. In reality, biofuels mostly don’t fit these requirements – they are grown in huge, mechanized monocultures.

Second, there is the problem on which Mr Lomborg has concentrated his argumentation: growing grains and other eatable plants for fuels instead for food lets food prices explode. Lomborg’s claim that biofuels are the only cause of food price spikes in 2007/08 and recently, is an oversimplification (somewhat typical for him) – but they surely are among the main causes of these crises.

Obama administration official declared that even amidst the highest food prices the world has seen, there is “no reason to take the foot off the gas” on biofuel.In fact, there are millions of reasons – all of them suffering needlessly – to apply the brakes.

Why they have not been abandoned yet, though? The big problem with biofuels (but not only with them) is that politicians are generally reluctant to admit that their policies have been flawed:

The problem, as Gore has put it, is that “it’s hard once such a program is put in place to deal with the lobbies that keep it going.”

In the US, the lobby of agricultural corporations, strongly benefited by the biofuels boom, is particularly powerful. This does not make it easier to politicians to step back.

Nevertheless, that is what has to be done: the idea that biofuels are beneficial in any way has to be abandoned. Instead of always seeking the (re)solution in technologies (in this case, in new generations of fuels), we should consider a change in our life styles. Without that, without sufficiency, no technology will save us from anything.

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