A couple years ago, investing in biofuels was the shit. Incentivizing biofuel production was thought to be good for business and good for the environment, a win-win. It's that rare cause that could bring together Al Gore, President Bush, and Willie Nelson.
Oops. It turns out now that we've had a few years to study things, and worldwide investment in biofuels has risen from $5 billion in 1995 to $38 billion in 2005, everybody's wrong, and we're all fucked. The biofuel boom is actually accelerating global warming. Time has an excellent cover story this week, The Clean Energy Scam, with all the details, but the basic problem is simple: "using land to grow fuel leads to the destruction of forests, wetlands, and grasslands that store huge amounts of carbon." Yes, switchgrass, sugarcane ethanol, even corn ethanol are all cleaner energy sources than oil-based gasoline, but those crops replace vegetation and soils that suck up even more carbon. So it's a big net loss. In order to get these biofuels, we're devastating huge swaths of land - a Rhode Island-size chunk of the Amazon rain forest was deforested just in the second half of 2007. And the demands to kill more carbon-absorbing land are only growing: the energy bill signed last year mandates producing 36 billion gallons of biofuel by 2022 (we do 7 billion now). It's not just the farmers in Iowa getting rich off this, agribusiness has plants going up in several other states. The beast is loose: "biofuels increase demand for crops, which boosts prices, which drives agricultural expansion, which eats forests."
Scientists have been on the biofuel bandwagon - how did they get it so wrong? As Time puts it, "It was as if the science world assumed biofuels would be grown in parking lots. The deforestation in Indonesia shows that's not the case. It turns out the carbon lost when wilderness is razed overwhelms the gains from cleaner-burning fuels."
Just as bad, apparently some people in the world still use land to grow real food, and the 800 million people in the world with cars are taking food from the 800 million people in the world who are hungry and putting it in our gas tanks. I, for one, think that's rude. Going up to a poor Brazilian boy, snatching the hot dog out of his hand and shoving it in the nozzle of your Prius, that's wrong. But this is happening: four years ago, two University of Minnesota researchers predicted hunger would drop to 625 million but last year they revised that estimate to 1.2 billion, a significant gain, because of biofuels.
What do we do? I don't know. If global warming really is a planetary emergency, we need socialized medicine for our environment. As long as the profit motive is what it is, deforestation will continue to be a problem. Railing against it has to become hip again, like it was in the early 90s. But what do we do for fuel, now that even switchgrass isn't even that good? Filling our cars with Chinese people is looking better and better everyday.