Last stage of denial: ethanol will save us!


Richard Moore

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Corny Energy 'Solution'
Last stage of denial: ethanol will save us!

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By Murray Dobbin
Published: April 4, 2007

Citizens in industrialized societies, including Canada, will cling to their 
extravagant lifestyles and massive over-consumption for a while yet, it seems. 
Global climate change is still seen by most people -- even those who have no 
doubt of its human origins -- as something that can be fixed by legislation, 
tougher rules and punitive penalties on big polluters -- and that allegedly 
clean and green quick fix, ethanol.

Yes, we can all keep our individual chunks of steel, rubber and glass, those 
symbols of 20th century excess and irrationality, so long as we shift to burning

This particular mass delusion was madness enough to inspire the still-ailing 
Fidel Castro out of his bed to write the first editorial he has written for the 
country's principal newspaper, Granma, since last falling ill last July. It's 
not as if there is a lack of issues for the grand old commander-in-chief to 
comment on. But this one he deemed the most important. Why?

To quote Castro himself: "More than three billion people in the world are being 
condemned to a premature death from hunger and thirst.... The sinister idea of 
turning foodstuffs into fuel was definitely established as the economic strategy
of the U.S. foreign policy on Monday, March 26th last."

That was the day that President George Bush met with the Big Three auto CEOs and
declared ethanol to be the next strategic fuel for the empire -- and a partial 
answer to its failed Middle East policies.

20 per cent solution?

Castro was talking about corn but this is not the only grain that the ethanol 
pushers are talking about -- wheat, sunflower seeds, canola and other foodstuffs
are already being used and targeted by, amongst others, the big oil companies. 
The demand for ethanol will be so enormous that only the largest and best 
capitalized corporations in the U.S. will be able to take advantage -- driving 
smaller producers out by driving up the price of corn.

Bush proclaimed coming out the meeting with the Big Three that he is aiming at 
reducing gasoline consumption by 20 per cent in 10 years -- a staggering number 
if it is to be taken seriously, requiring 35 billion gallons of ethanol. Of 
course Bush and his corporate allies talked about using wood chips and 
switchgrass, too, but corn is the key. To produce that much ethanol would take 
320 million tons of corn. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organizations (FAO) says
that U.S. corn production in 2005 reached 280 million tons and the U.S. produces
40 per cent of the world's corn, controlling the market price. It doesn't take 
complicated math to see that just to meet U.S. ethanol demands within 10 years 
will take up 46 per cent of the world's corn supply.

This is an obscenity. Because most of these billions of tons of corn are now 
eaten by the world's people -- most of them poor -- or fed to their livestock. 
Ultimately, it means that the world will have to produce more and more grain 
just to stand still and at the same time that the demand for ethanol increases 
the price of corn. The FAO says the competition between grain for fuel and grain
for food is already happening and was the principal explanation for the decline 
in world grain stocks during the first half of 2006.

As Castro pointed out in his Granma article, not only will corn be priced out of
reach for millions, "What is worse, let the poor countries receive some 
financing to produce ethanol from corn or any other foodstuff and very soon not 
a single tree will be left standing to protect humanity from climate change." He
also pointed out, demonstrating that his grasp of world events is as acute as 
ever, that the increased demand for grain for energy will also greatly 
exacerbate the already critical water shortage facing two thirds of humanity.

Discouraging numbers

Despite this catastrophic scenario there are still those who will argue that the
trade-off has to be considered, that global climate change due to carbon 
emissions must be tackled. But recently two Canadian studies raised serious 
doubts about what we actually get in this morally questionable trade. The U.S. 
may well get a strategic replacement for oil but there are serious doubts the 
world's climate will benefit. One study was done by the Library of Parliament's 
Frédéric Forge working in its science and technology division. Forge says the 
benefit of the massive effort required to use 10 per cent ethanol in all 
vehicles will be minor: "In fact, if 10 per cent of the fuel used were 
corn-based ethanol [in other words, if it were used in all vehicles], Canada's 
greenhouse gas emissions would drop by approximately one per cent."

But an unpublished study by Environment Canada says even this estimate is 
questionable. A recent CBC report -- it came and went with no one else touching 
it and was not repeated -- revealed that scientists at Environment Canada 
studied four vehicles of recent makes, comparing normal emissions with a 10 
percent ethanol blend and using a range of driving conditions. The study 
revealed that there was virtually no statistically significant difference in 
greenhouse gas tail pipe emissions. Some of the hydrocarbon gas emissions 
actually increased under some conditions.

The delusional thinking that tells us we can maintain our current lifestyles and
save the planet will, sooner or later, be relegated to history's dustbin. The 
sooner we dispose of that part of the delusion embodied by "salvation by 
ethanol" the better. Then we can start on hybrid vehicles. And since you asked, 
I don't own a car. I am member of the Co-operative Auto Network.

Related Tyee stories:

  € Ethanol to the Rescue?
Energy from corn! says Bush. What could go wrong?

  € Plug-In Car to the Rescue?
Driving toward energy independence.

  € My Life as Ethical Test Driver
I tried everything from electric bikes to the trendy Prius.

Murray Dobbin writes his State of the Nation column twice monthly for The Tyee. 
You can find previous ones here.

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