Aug 22, 2005
Biodiesel is on centerstage now
The scene is not without some clouds on the horizon. As worldwide awareness of and demand for biofuels rise, the third world will increasingly be tempted to supply cheap energy to the developed world. George Monbiot has flagged the emerging threat in an important essay. Given his penchant to shock and shake, he begins it with this statement: “The adoption of biofuels would be a humanitarian and environmental disaster.” Really? Read on. His worry is that the recent political activism in Europe in favour of biodiesel will spur rape of third world farms. “The European Union wants 2% of the oil we use to be biodiesel by the end of next year, rising to 6% by 2010 and 20% by 2020. To try to meet these targets, the government has reduced the tax on biofuels by 20 pence a litre, while the EU is paying farmers an extra 45 euros a hectare to grow them.”
He then imagines a worldwide disaster extrapolating the European experience with sourcing its biofuel from mostly rapeseed and soya: “...every hectare of arable land could provide 1.45 tonnes of transport fuel.” Then comes the leap: “then most of the arable surface of the planet will be deployed to produce food for cars, not people.” He does note later that oil palms produce four times as much as rapeseed, but even that is an edible oil.
Pongamia can be a wasteland tree, its oil is not edible, its care requires no chemical fertilisers or much water, it does not call for repeated planting and harvest like rape or soya do and the enriched land under its canopy can be used to raise edible crops. If then pongamia oil is used mostly for local energy needs, Monbiot’s concerns are nearly fully addressed. Jatropha alas, does not have the same advantages, notably a croppable canopy.
Some residual concern however remains. Global carpet-braggers are likely to transform themselves into environmentalists, fan out into the third world and make a tidy profit. Monbiot, again:"At a meeting in Paris last month, a group of scientists and greens studying abrupt climate change decided that Tony Blairs two big ideas tackling global warming and helping Africa could both be met by turning Africa into a biofuel production zone.”
Here’s another example of how the West’s pre-occupation with field-crops based biofuels can give the subject some pretty bad headlines. Professors Pimental of Cornell and Patzek of Berkeley have caused this headline: “Cornell ecologist’s study finds that producing ethanol and biodiesel from corn and other crops is not worth the energy”. Quite apart from raising credibility issues, the sweeping claim -"There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel"- makes one tremble at the influence these centres of learning might have on global policies. Deservedly this piece of research prompted a rebuttal and a debate at WorldChanging, which is worth studying.
Monbiot’s wait for vindication as a prophet has been short. Biodiesel entrepreneurs are swiftly afoot. Soon after the above story was published, we came across the following revelation at this site captioned:"Mysore-based firm to supply bio-crude to Britain”
“Under the long-term contract with the UK-based global firm, D1 Oils, Labland will supply one crore jatropha plants produced through tissue culture every year for the next 10 years for global distribution. It will also supply 10,000-50,000 tonnes of jatropha crude oil every year for the next 15 years. The British company will refine the crude and make it available globally as biodiesel.
“To meet the contractual obligations, the plant technology company is roping in farmers from different parts of Karnataka as well as from the neighbouring states under its contract-farming programme.
“With this, Labland proposes to add 65,000 acres of in the state every year for the next five years for jatropha cultivation, taking the total area under its cultivation to 3.25 lakh acres by 2010.”
And who is D1 Oils? Go tothis link and browse the others from there.