Government-funded conversion to "biofuels" such as ethanol is scarcely helping with energy efficiency and is exacerbating a global food crisis. It's time for Canada to reverse course on this failed approach.
Around the world, governments have enthusiastically embraced ethanol and other biofuels in recent years. Fuel from plant sources would, the thinking went, greatly reduce carbon-dioxide emissions and, for some countries, would also reduce reliance on foreign oil.
Skeptics have long warned that ethanol is no miracle cure, offering slight energy gains at best. But in country after country, powerful farm lobbies have encouraged government subsidies for ethanol.
Now, however, the pendulum is swinging strongly in the other direction. Last fall Jean Ziegler, the UN's "special rapporteur on the right to food," claimed it was a "crime against humanity" to divert corn from food to fuel. That claim resonates more loudly this spring, because of fast-rising grain prices -- and resulting unrest -- around the world. The enormous investment in biofuels in the U.S., the European Union, Canada and elsewhere, we are coming to see, is fuelling a food crisis in poor countries.
To be sure, there are also other, bigger reasons for the global food crisis that has arisen lately. Drought in Australia, for example, has greatly reduced that country's rice crop. (So has a boom in wine-grape production.) And in China and other countries, people once malnourished are now eating more grain while simultaneously demanding more meat from grain-fed animals.
Grain-shortage causes such as those are intractable, but government mandates for biofuel are not. It is fine that corn farmers are planting every acre they can plow, but at present prices would be high even without the biofuel boondoggle. The obvious solution is to stop biofuel production in its tracks. But countries from Canada to Britain are not scrapping their biofuel requirements with anything like the speed with which they imposed them.
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Canada's federal government set a goal of five per cent ethanol in gasoline by 2010. As part of its legislated biofuel package, Ottawa is also subsidizing ethanol production by 10 cents a litre. This program and related biofuel measures will cost up to $1.5 billion over seven years.
Last year, the U.S. Congress mandated a fivefold increase in the use of biofuels. And presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain all know a farm-state vote-getter when they see one. Clinton and Obama are calling for more ethanol factories, to replace 15 per cent of conventional fuel with ethanol.
Britain's Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation came into force this week, requiring that oil sold in Britain contain biofuel. Environmentalists condemned the U.K. government's "perverse obstinacy" and "utter folly" in insisting on biofuels. If the same environmentalists turned their sights on Ottawa, Washington and Brussels, they could say exactly the same thing.
This refusal to acknowledge that biofuel should not be the object of legislated, enforced use will lead to even worse troubles in the world. Biofuel might have a place, but what that place should be needs to be very carefully weighted against damage to the environment and disruption of the world's food production.
There might still be a major use for ethanol some day, and research should continue. Brazil has made good progress, for example, in using non-food plant material such as sugar-cane waste to produce ethanol. But because prices are high, vast tracts of rainforest are being razed there to make way for sugarcane farms.
There are no short-cuts to reducing oil use and greenhouse gas emissions. But for the moment, at least, conservation measures seem far more promising than substitutes which are proving to be so much snake oil.
© The Gazette (Montreal) 2008