25 March 2006

The new climate cynicism

By Andrew Boswell

A few weeks ago President Bush declared that America was "Addicted to Oil". Was this a new found honesty marking the death of 'Climate Scepticism' in post-Katrina America?

Well, Climate Scepticism' was never viable – it was a mirage cynically created by powerful Oil interests, an attempt to fool the public that there was an alternative scientific view on climate change.

But Bush's speech does mark a new era: "climate scepticism is dead, long live climate cynicism". Its message was we are oil addicted but we can develop brave, new techno-fixes - promoted by and protecting the same corporate interests. The opportunity to tackle the greater, deeper addiction at the root of Western life was not explored - the addict in denial never wants to explore the underlying causes, and face real change.

It is investigated in the recent documentary film The End of Suburbia which shows how car dependency is deeply woven into the fabric of American life. For seventy years, planners have developed vast networks of roads and associated services like shopping malls. America is unable to heal its addiction, because it has been structurally 'built in' over many decades.

Instead, Opium dream like, a new mirage is needed to keep 'business as usual'.

Enter Bush's speech, part of a highly orchestrated campaign to promote a global, mega-scale biofuel commodity trade. The dream sweeping the world is that the global growth economy can continue business as usual by replacing endemic oil consumption with massive bioethanol production and consumption.

Just weeks later, a media fanfare accompanied the opening of the first E85 pump in the UK at Morrisons in Norwich last week - E85 being mix of 85% bioethanol and 15% petrol. A Google search shows that Norfolk had 5 seconds of fame as far away as Auckland and Beijing as glowing press reports described how "Harvest BioEthanol E85" is delivered through "environmentally-friendly pumps" featuring a new butterfly logo and a blue filling hose.

However, we won't be seeing queues at Morrisons for a while, as only specially adapted cars or one new model can actually run on E85 – and this is an image conscious, 'turbo' model. Such tokenism allows the better-off to salve their environmental conscience. Drivers really wanting to make a difference are better to dispense with image, and choose a conventional but economic model (ie Vehicle Excise Duty band A or B cars that generate less than 120 gms of C02 per km), and to keep to speed limits.

The hype breaks down further as:
  1. the Norwich E85 is imported from Brazil requiring fossil fuels for its transport

  2. recent research shows that there is only a 13% reduction in C02 emissions for sugar-based bioethanol compared to petrol (just 11% for E85), and

  3. more fossil fuel energy is required to produce it than it generates.
    • Could the UK develop an E85 economy? No, as we could never produce enough home grown bioethanol. Instead, the mass biofuels route would take us to dependency on imports with significant ethical issues. Yet, across the world, ever-expanding areas of cash crops for vehicle fuels are displacing local food production and decimating the livelihoods of small farmers and local people. Enormous areas of forests (our life-support systems) are being destroyed, with untold loss of wildlife and entire species, and releasing huge amounts of greenhouse gasses.

      What about the new technology that Bush spoke of being able to 'deliver' within six years - 'cellulosic ethanol'? Heralded because its raw physics is more efficient – greater C02 savings than current sugar based technology and it can deliver more energy output than is put in. Could this deliver a US ethanol economy?

      Massive bioethanol burning could have unknown atmospheric effects - studies already show that it would increase atmospheric levels of the carcinogen acetaldehyde, and peroxyacetylnitrate (PAN - which damages genetic material, and an irritant to eyes and lungs). Increased use of ethanol in California has already caused significant increases in atmospheric ozone.

      Studies suggest, even given the vast mid-West croplands, that US food production would be impacted, and it is doubtful that the copious supplies of water required for the thirsty fermentation process are available. The biotech processes are in their infancy - the economic viability of mega-scale production and its early delivery are not givens.

      In attempting to solve one problem with mass scale biofuels, we may create a host of other problems. The energy climate crisis needs to be tackled at the roots. We must find ways to decouple prosperity from massive scale transport by localising and decentralising economies, and find happiness outside the unprecedented consumption cult and year-on-year economic growth.

      I am indebted to independent researcher Sue Pollard for many discussions on Biofuels.