Sunday, May 6, 2007
Two world-historical events show this pattern clearly, one from the nineteenth century and one that is about to happen: industrialization and climate change. Beginning in the eighteenth century in Britain and extending in the nineteenth century to parts of Western Europe and America, industrialization transformed fossil fuel energy into new manufacturing processes, new products, and a new economic order. Industrialization brought many benefits to these nations including longer life spans, economic growth, an abundance of material goods, less physically demanding labor, and more leisure time. There have certainly been some costs associated with industrialization—uneven distributions of the wealth, great poverty existing next to great wealth, sickness due to pollution—but on the whole, the benefits in these nations have outweighed the costs. If you doubt this, ask yourself whether you would really expect to have a better quality of life in England in 1750 than in America today.
However, outside of Europe and America, industrialization has had a much more ambiguous record. The nineteenth century saw a great advance in European colonization of Africa and parts of Asia. While germs were always important to these forays, the industrial technologies of the nineteenth century—steamboats, machine guns, telegraph wires—were essential to maintaining colonial holdings. For much of the world, the direct result of industrialization was subjection to colonial rulers, which led to the extraction of wealth from the countries, repressive government regimes, and slavery. The period of decolonization has been little better, as the withdrawal of colonial governments left decimated infrastructure, weak economies, and power voids that have often been filled by military dictatorships.
In the 21st century, the negative effects of climate change will also be disproportionately felt by developing nations. While climate change is not likely to bring major benefits to anyone—the possible exceptions being northern lands such as Canada and Siberia that might expand agricultural output—the worst will be experienced in poor, low-lying countries. The United States, the biggest contributor to global warming, will get off relatively easily. Even though parts of Florida and the Gulf Coast will likely be covered in water, this loss will be minimal compared to the devastation experienced in other parts of the world.
Many of the nations of the developing world will pay the costs of global warming in human lives. For low-lying countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, and the Philippines, much of the land will be lost to sea. By losing farmland, malnutrition will be exacerbated. Standing water also provides ideal grounds for the spread of diseases like cholera and malaria. Even in inland countries, the effects will be significant. Over a billion people depend on the water from the Himalayas. As the glaciers begin melting, this may leave millions without essential fresh water. In mainland Africa, more variable weather conditions will disrupt agricultural patterns and may lead to famine conditions. Famine, malnutrition, and disease are all preventable occurrences, but history shows us that as a global society we have lacked the will and commitment to address these issues. There is little reason to think that it is about to change.
The message is clear: those who have received the benefits of industrialization must stop ignoring the costs of our actions just because they are easily transferred to the rest of the world. Climate change must be addressed, and those countries that have benefited the most must lead the charge. If $100 billion can be dedicated towards rebuilding New Orleans, surely similar resources can be directed towards alleviating the known sufferings—and possible deaths—of millions that will be displaced from their homes and livelihoods by our fossil fuel dependence.
Corn ethanol is not the answer to the critical energy challenges facing the world today. Current efforts to develop corn ethanol risk devoting scarce resources towards an energy approach that offers marginal returns. Instead of pandering to interest politics and focusing on energy independence to the exclusion of climate change issues, we need to devote our energy investments towards more promising options.
Corn ethanol suffers from at least three critical shortcomings. The first is that it offers a limited, at best, return on energy investment due to the costs of growing, transporting, and processing corn. Whether ethanol offers any return at all is a current topic of debate. Recent review articles in Science and Environmental Science and Technology find that on the whole, most research reveals that ethanol contains a slight return on investment—a range of 1.29 to 1.64 is cited by the latter article. The one researcher consistently reporting negative values is David Pimentel, who argues the energy return of ethanol is 0.84. The variety of numbers reflects the authors’ varied assumptions. Pimentel includes more energy inputs in his equation, such as energy used by workers to travel and in the manufacture of capital equipment. His critics, however, contend that he uses old data that over-inflates certain energy costs and that he does not include the energy-value of the by-products of ethanol production. Regardless of the exact value, the important point to keep in mind is that the energy return is at best mediocre. Corn ethanol requires too many fossil fuel inputs to be the basis of a renewable energy system.
Second, ethanol does not address the issue of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which is arguably the greatest energy challenge we are facing at present. While fossil fuels are depleting, the more immediate energy problem the world faces is climate change, which has the potential to seriously disrupt ecosystems and devastate poor, low-lying countries. Estimates of the GHG emissions associated with the production of corn ethanol vary depending on how it is produced and used, but the authors of the Science article find a range varying from a 32% decrease to a 20% increase in GHGs, with an average saving of around 13%. Just like the modest returns of energy from ethanol, its benefits for alleviating the perils of global warming are mediocre as well.
A third consideration is the land needed to grow corn. There are natural limits to the extent we can expand corn production in order to increase ethanol output based on land availability. It is not clear that it will be possible to dramatically increase the total supply of ethanol given competing demands on agricultural land. In addition, there are serious questions about whether this is good idea. It may create environmental impacts on the land that is brought under cultivation. The best land is already under cultivation, so the additional fields planted will likely yield an even lower return on energy investment. More seriously, it brings into question whether land that could be growing food to feed people around the world would be devoted to ethanol instead.
The news is not completely bleak for ethanol, however, if we look past corn. The most intriguing possibilities in the ethanol world come from cellulosic ethanol. Whereas corn ethanol produces fuel only from the kernels of corn, cellulosic ethanol transforms entire plants, including leaves, stems, and stalks into fuel. The main benefit of this approach is that the lignin within plant cell walls includes energy that can be used to break down the plant materials and generate ethanol. This energy savings has resulted in studies promising an energy return of 4.40 to 6.61, while some suggest values over 10 might be achieved. However, such technology is at the early stages of development and cellulosic ethanol cannot be manufactured in significant quantities. Supporting this technology would be a much wiser policy than feeding more pork to Midwestern corn farmers.
Given all the problems with corn ethanol and the limited upside, why does it continue to garner such attention? The first reason is that people are not accustomed to viewing energy cycles holistically and asking questions about the energy required in the production of ethanol. The second reason is that energy independence is often discussed separately from climate change and sustainability. Corn ethanol can help us reduce imports of oil, which is certainly a desirable goal. However, energy independence that does not address the issue of climate change is not a wise policy, as it leads us out of the frying pan and into the fire. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, corn ethanol is being driven by Midwestern politicians who see it as an opportunity to bring money and industries to their states. While politicians have always sought to serve their constituents by attracting funding to their regions, we cannot allow such approaches to determine energy policy. Instead, we need to identify energy solutions that are sustainable, environmentally-friendly, and economically promising instead of pandering to interest politics.
So what should the future of ethanol be? Well, to quote a familiar phrase, it depends. If the government is truly committed to pursuing solutions to the pressing problems of energy, then ethanol should continue to receive some support. It can help us achieve a bit of energy independence and support Midwestern agriculturalists. However, in the current political environment where there are limited funds available for the development of new technologies, scarce resources should be shifted away from ethanol and towards technologies that offer greater promise, such as wind and solar power. By drawing money and attention away from more promising approaches, ethanol might actually make our energy problems worse.
 A value of 1 implies that there is no energy gain or loss in the production of ethanol. A value above 1 indicates a net positive gain and a value below 1 indicates a net energy loss. Alexander E. Farrell et al., "Ethanol Can Contribute to Energy and Environmental Goals," Science 311, no. 5760 (2006), Roel Hammerschlag, "Ethanol's Energy Return on Investment: A Survey of the Literature 1990-Present," Environmental Science and Technology 40 (2006).
 David Pimentel and Tad Patzek, "Ethanol Producting Using Corn, Switchgrass, and Wood; Biodiesel Production Using Soybean and Sunflower," Natural Resources Research 14, no. 1 (2005).
 Farrell et al., "Ethanol Can Contribute to Energy and Environmental Goals.", Roel Hammerschlag, "Ethanol: Energy Well Spent," (National Resources Defense Council, 2006).
 Farrell et al., "Ethanol Can Contribute to Energy and Environmental Goals," 506.
 Hammerschlag, "Ethanol's Energy Return on Investment: A Survey of the Literature 1990-Present."
However, focusing on oil to the exclusion of other energy sources is crude thinking. It blinds us to the full range of issues we must address as a society. Oil represents only about 40% of total world-wide energy use, meaning that to have a comprehensive view we must account for the other 60%.
Where does this other 60% come from? A mix of coal, natural gas, hydroelectricity, and a few renewable sources. Each of these energy sources comes with its own set of political, environmental, and social consequences. For example, coal has the highest carbon dioxide emissions of any fossil fuel, the use of natural gas has helped lower emissions but its supplies are dwindling, and hydroelectric dams disrupt ecological habitats.
Yes, oil is important. But it is not so important that we should blind ourselves to the pressing issues associated with other energy sources.