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Eat Your Cake and Run Your Car?

by afew Thu Dec 21st, 2006 at 08:59:40 AM EST

Last summer, when looking here at ET at biofuels for the European Commission Biofuels Consultation, we concluded increased biofuel production in Europe would fairly quickly lead to competition for arable land with food uses of the same crops, particularly grains. A real-life example now comes from China (see yesterday's Salon where I excerpted an IPS article that says (with a couple of rearrangements on my part) this:

China's biofuel industry is booming thanks to voracious demand for energy to power the country's high-flying economy. Applying modernised versions of ancient chemical processes to convert crops and oils into energy sources, Chinese entrepreneurs have created a profitable "green business" with plenty of room to grow.

China has been encouraging the production of biofuel such as ethanol and methane from renewable resources to reduce the country's growing dependence on imported oil. Once an exporter, China now imports at least 43 percent of its oil supply.

But worried over surging crop prices China is now clamping down on the use of corn and other edible grains for producing biofuel. While it wants to support the growth of alternative energy sources, Beijing says the issue of national food security should take precedence over the country's green agenda. <...>

"We have a principle with biofuel: it should neither impact the people's grain consumption, nor should it compete with grain crops for cultivated land," the People's Daily quoted Yang Jian, director of the development planning department under the Agriculture Ministry, as saying.

It's interesting that China is using grains, especially corn (maize) as biofuel feedstock:

Government officials estimate that corn contributes around three-fourths of the raw material used for making ethanol in China. Output of ethanol fuel is projected at 1.3 million tonnes this year, according to the China Daily. Experts however, say that output from private and public producers this year may reach five million tonnes. <...>

Industrial processing in China consumed 23 million tonnes of corn in 2005, an annual increase of 16.5 percent from 2001, while corn production increased at the slower rate of five percent during the same period, according to a circular released this week by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), China's top economic body.

This makes the Chinese experience more easily transposable to Europe, where grains, particularly corn, are expected to supply most of the future ramped-up production of ethanol, (and also to the US, where corn-based ethanol is, for the moment, the star). Like Europe, China aims at food self-sufficiency. Conflict between that aim and the aim of energy security (promotion of indigenous energy sources) seems inevitable. You can't have your cake and eat it or rather, eat your cake and run your car on it. At some point, either you import corn, or you import ethanol:

Experts warn that if ethanol production continues to be corn-based, China will be forced to import the crop by 2008. Relying on crop imports is a sensitive issue as the government policy supports food self-sufficiency for the sake of national security.

"The excessive growth of corn processing has resulted in scarce feed for livestock and affected the development of animal husbandry. Some main producing areas are even considering importing corn," said the NDRC circular.

However, it's true China has difficulties we don't have:

While rivalry between food and fuel producers for grains is not limited to China, the problem is particularly acute here because of the country's low per-capita arable land to feed its vast population.

The grain crop is expected to hit a record 490 million tons this year, the third straight year of bumper harvests but Chinese planners are worried that fast-shrinking farming land could affect grain supply in the near future. Arable land is said to have shrunk by 8 million hectares between 1999 and 2005.

China's arable per-capita was low even before the shrinkage referred to here. The People's Daily discusses it in a 2004 article, giving 123m hectares as the country's arable surface. With a population of 1.3 bn, that makes for a little under 10 ares (0.1 ha) per person.

For an idea of relative per-capita arable land, see this graph based on 1997 statistics:

A considerable area of China, however, is in warm latitudes. Sweet sorghum is a serious contender as a feedstock for ethanol, but:

Chinese producers however, continue to make ethanol from corn because the mass planting of non-grain feedstock as cassava and sorghum has yet to be implemented on a large scale due to the lack of suitable farming technologies.

So they're not yet ready to get round to it. The lesson for Europe is that we only have maize and wheat (and a little sugar-beet) for ethanol. No high-energy, warm-latitude crops can be brought in to "save" us. As Migeru has several times pointed out, Europe is situated to the North. The US has a great deal of land south of the southernmost parts of Europe (as a rough guide, the 40th parallel goes through Madrid and Philadelphia). China reaches even further into warmer climes (Canton is on the Tropic of Cancer, which is south of the Florida Keys).

No encouragement here, then, for Europe's biofuel-from-crops supporters. Unless global warming speeds up and we start growing sugar cane in Lower Saxony...

Interesting diary afew, thanks.  This isn't quite directly related but when I was wandering around the food festival in Paris I saw a tractor promoting the fact that it runs on 100% biofuel.  I took a photo so I'll take another look later.
by In Wales (inwales aaat eurotrib.com) on Thu Dec 21st, 2006 at 10:19:28 AM EST
I was wondering how long it would take until this limitation would come visible, faster then expected. Maybe it is a good thing it is happening so fast, like this maybe, maybe some people will start looking on a more global concept, meaning including many different solution and hopefully also concervation.

Would have liked to recommend it or at least given you some mojo. :-)

by Fran on Thu Dec 21st, 2006 at 10:30:28 AM EST
My problem with biofuels is that they seem to hold the attraction of a perpetual motion machine. They simply are not...there are inputs going in to produce the energy that's coming out.

The most precious input in this biofuel cycle is the simplest...


With declining stocks of fresh water, we can't be spending it on cranking up our cars.

So I'm still waiting for hydrogen or solar batteries.

Thanks for this.

by gradinski chai on Thu Dec 21st, 2006 at 10:44:25 AM EST
Hey, nice to see you around this place again gradinski chai. :-)
by Fran on Thu Dec 21st, 2006 at 11:27:34 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Same here gradisnki chai and Happy Solstice.  (Jerome was looking for you recently.)

Our knowledge has surpassed our wisdom. -Charu Saxena.
by metavision on Thu Dec 21st, 2006 at 01:50:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Hydrogen uses water as well ... there may be an advantage if non-potable water can be used, eg, sea water or sewage flows (I do not know how technically feasible either of those are), but if it is using distilled water then more than a kg of potable water would be required for each kg of hydrogen.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.
by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Dec 25th, 2006 at 12:53:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
About 9 kilos of water per kilo of hydrogen.

Those whom the Gods wish to destroy They first make mad. -- Euripides
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Dec 25th, 2006 at 12:59:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You made me think about all the sides of the issue.  Thanks.

by Keone Michaels on Thu Dec 21st, 2006 at 01:50:01 PM EST
This tropical/temperate trade off may well extend from ethanol to biodiesel ... looking at the possibilities for the Dem. Republic of Congo, there is the traditional oil crop, the Oil Palm, which has a far higher yield of vegetable oils per hectare than soybeams, as well as plants like the jatropha being developed in India as sources of vegetable oil to grow on marginal lands. None of the temperate alternatives seem quite as promising.

In terms of getting the most solar energy converted into fuel, the only really appealing approach for temperate-climate ethanol are cellulose to ethanol processes, and as of yet none of the low-energy processes are ready for prime time.

And it goes without saying that no biofuel is a plug and play replacement for the role that gasoline and petro-diesel plays in our present profligate economy (deep breath) ... but I guess we may as well say it every once in a while to stay in practice.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Thu Dec 21st, 2006 at 06:21:09 PM EST
On your final point, total agreement.

As to biodiesel, there are significant negative impacts on the environment from oil palm monoculture. In particular, the remaining rainforest is being slashed and burned in Indonesia/Malaysia to make way for oil-palm plantations (the habitat of the last orang-outans is directly threatened). Of course, similar problems occur with soy in Brazil (also sugar-cane for ethanol).

As you say, the "hope" for biofuels is in the next generation, cellulose => fuel. Marginal lands could be used for wood and/or grass production, even in more northerly climes.

But there's no magic bullet. See our Biofuels Consultation contribution for a look at EU consumption and the volumes needed to replace petroleum-based fuels, even in a small proportion.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Dec 22nd, 2006 at 04:31:06 AM EST
[ Parent ]
In this case, the Oil Palm plantations are already there, just as the Coconut Palm plantations are there in the Eastern Caribbean islands I'm also looking at (though many are a shadow of their former selves with the structural shift from high cholesterol to low cholesterol oils). What we are looking at is a supply of biodiesel to fuel a weekly round trip of a truck between the market town serving a group of 5-10 rural villages and the closest regional depot ... most often a river pier ... plus run the regional gravel crusher as it makes its visit to the locality .

The focus of local transport in the plan is on transport bikes, so its not as if biodiesel is attempting to take up a share of the transport market similar to the US share.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Fri Dec 22nd, 2006 at 11:01:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I didn't realize from your first comment you were talking about a regional development plan. As you'll have gathered, I was looking at it from the point of view of world trade in biofuels (biodiesel in this case). Vegetable oils for local use in transport seems promising (example given by In Wales above of a tractor running on vegetable oil), and no doubt all the more in higher-yield climates.

This emphasizes the temperate/subtropical split all the more. Yields from rapeseed or sunflowerseed are low, yet there are schemes now well afoot in the EU to promote (and subsidise) local biodiesel production units. I know of one where I live, that is most unlikely to ever pay its way (I don't mean make a profit, I mean cover costs). I'll write about it some time soon.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Fri Dec 22nd, 2006 at 12:15:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
My focus is on sustainable rural development in low income countries, but I would in general be skeptical about the sustainability of systems that involve substantial energy transfers between large nations or regional groups of nations.

Certainly I would need to see a real, material countervailing benefit, and not just another neoclassical mathematical fantasy about the gains from unfettered trade in a complete network of perfectly competitive markets supplied by large numbers of self-sufficient small producers.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Sun Dec 24th, 2006 at 02:26:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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