Friday, February 15, 2008

Good Intentions:Biofuels / Bad Consequences: Worse Than Gasoline And Better As Food?

One technological development with the worthwhile intentions of helping to improve the environment and to lessen the economy's dependency on foreign oil was the move from petroleum based fuels to biofuels. Unfortunately, as there so often is, there are unintended consequences.

One debate is centered around Food versus Fuel. Some sample articles are included in this online folder. It is not the purpose of this post to take a side, but to understand better the challenge in realizing what is necessary to create benefit without unintentionally creating harm elsewhere or at the very least to have a net benefit.

The Economist raised the issue for this weblog's consideration.

This year biofuels will take a third of America's (record) maize harvest. That affects food markets directly: fill up an SUV's fuel tank with ethanol and you have used enough maize to feed a person for a year. And it affects them indirectly, as farmers switch to maize from other crops. The 30m tonnes of extra maize going to ethanol this year amounts to half the fall in the world's overall grain stocks.
BusinessWeek Magazine also reported on the Food vs. Fuel debate.
Corn is caught in a tug-of-war between ethanol plants and food, one of the first signs of a coming agricultural transformation and a global economic shift. Ever since our ancestors in the Fertile Crescent first figured out how to grow grains, crops have been used mainly to feed people and livestock. But now that's changing in response to the high price of oil, the cost in lives and dollars of ensuring a supply of petroleum imports, and limits on climate-warming emissions of fossil fuels.

The other articles in the folder take sides regarding the issue but not merely for or against. Other possibilities are explored including technological ones., one of the articles in the online folder, informs us that,

Bruce Dale, an MSU chemical engineering and materials science professor, notes that ethanol can be made from cellulosic materials, like farm waste, instead of corn grain.
Now more hurtles appear for this technology of best intentions.

Wired Science on via Wired: Top Stories reports that Studies Say Biofuels Worse Than Gasoline
According to two studies published this week in Science, when all relevant factors are accounted for, biofuels produce more greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels.
The same issue was reported on in the Los Angeles Times By Staff Writer Alan Zarembo.
The conversion of forests and grasslands into fields for the plants offsets the benefit of using the fuel, researchers find. Greenhouse-gas output overall would rise instead of fall.

The rush to grow biofuel crops -- widely embraced as part of the solution to global warming -- is actually increasing greenhouse gas emissions rather than reducing them, according to two studies published Thursday in the journal Science.

This follow the same path as other stories in this weblog of attempting to fijavascript:void(0)
Publish Postnd solutions to problem but not fully understanding all of the ramifications, especially concerning healthcare

. I don't see it the same though as Alex Tabarrok does as,
The law of unintended consequences is what happens when a simple system tries to regulate a complex system.

Rather I see it as multiple complex systems competing, or more as limited humans trying to place their narrow intentions on a disinterested world. Good intentions not withstanding, the question of actual benefit still remains and it will likely still be difficult to ascertain whether the final outcomes were unintended or not.

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