Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Biofuels and the Limits of Growth

Biofuels are all the rage lately--our ticket to oil independence. But in a world that is struggling to provide enough food for its population and, lately, losing the struggle, any significant biofuel prorgram will have to compete for resources with other agricultural pursuits. Already some of the more fragile ecosystems are being destroyed by the rush into biofuels.

In West Africa the biggest new cause of deforestation in many regions is the conversion of land into biofuel crop production. The land rush to establish biofuel plantations in developing nations is one of the most intense the world has ever seen. Millions of square miles could be turned into biofuel plantations in the tropics, and the impact this will have on global rainfall and global temperatures is incalculable.

Deforestation and drought are causing a steady advance of deserts in northern Africa. There is a clear link between deforestation and drought, particularly in West Africa, as cited in the MIT study “Desertification, Deforestation and Drought,” where they demonstrate that deforestation along the southern coast of West Africa (e.g., in Nigeria, Ghana and Ivory Coast) may result in complete collapse of monsoon circulation, and a significant reduction of regional rainfall. Connections between deforestation and drought are well established throughout the tropics.

Moreover, the rush to deforest the tropics to grow biofuel - cassava in Nigeria, sugar cane in Brazil, oil palms in Indonesia - is a form of neocolonialism that Greens should find horrifying. Tariff barriers are being streamlined to allow tropical developing nations to export biofuel to the industrial north, food crops are being crowded out, small farmers are unable to participate, and in 100 square mile increments, land ownership passes into the hands of energy multinationals. And weather patterns take a turn for the worse.

The limits of growth are real and unavoidable; and now it would seem that the international economic market--that has no way to quantify things like the environment or, more importantly, the future, is pursuing renewable energy in possibly the most self destructive manner possible.

Ultimately we must reconcile ourselves to the reality of a low energy future.


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