The great South African biofuel delusion January 10, 2007Posted by Andreas in Environment, News, South Africa, Sustainable Living.
Biofuels (bio-ethanol, made from crops such as maize and sugar cane and biodiesel, made from oil seed crops like sunflowers) have been getting increasing amounts of news coverage in recent years. These alternatives to conventional petrol and diesel are being touted as green solutions to many of our environmental problems.
A careful and honest look at the realities of large-scale biofuel production will, however, make it quite obvious that they are not the answer to our problems.
The South African cabinet has just approved a draft biofuel strategy which opens the way for the establishment of a multi-billion rand biofuel industry in the country. The benefits: 55 000 new jobs and a reduction in the country’s dependence on imported oil and its carbon emissions.
According to a report by Melanie Gosling in yesterday’s Cape Times (which you won’t be able to read on-line unless you are a subscriber, @#&*%##@!) :
The strategy is also likely to see under-used land in the economically depressed former homelands being developed to grow crops for the biofuel industry…
The strategy proposes that there be a mandatory inclusion of 4.5% of biofuels in road transport fuel by 2013. This will mean an additional 1.3 million hectares of land will be needed to produce grain [700 000 hectares] and oilseeds [600 00 hectares] to supply the biofuel industry.
Sounds good at a first glance, right? Ja, but has anybody done the maths on this proposal? I suspect they have, but are too greedy to tell us (yes, I did say multi-billion rand industry earlier).
Even a back of the envelope calculation reveals the lunacy of believing that biofuels are the answer to our problems:
The “additional 1.3 million hectares of land” required to produce enough biofuels to make up a mere 4.5% of the country’s transport fuel would mean a doubling (approximately) of the total area currently under permanent cultivation in South Africa, a water-poor country which already uses almost half of its water for agriculture.
South Africa has some 15 million hectares of arable land (about 12.1% of its total area). Even if all of this arable land were to be used for biofuel production, it would still only generate just over half of the transport fuel that we consume (oh, and yes, we’d have to import all of our food).
I’m not, of course, the first person to be critical of mass-produced biofuels (read contributions by George Monbiot and David Pimentel). Biodiesel produced from recycled vegetable oil is a viable option, and I’m still keen to brew it for my own use, but it will only provide the proverbial drop in the ocean.
The bottom line is that we, as a society, as a civilisation, are oil addicts in a state of utter denial. What is required is that we ween ourselves off the stuff as quickly and as completely as possible, or we’ll soon find ourselves down Shit Street in a pedalo (to paraphrase James Howard Kunstler).