The Absurdity of Using the Biosphere to Power the Technosphere

In reaction to the proposed “Green New Deal,” there is a lot more discussion about the environmental and economic costs and benefits of renewable energy. Much of the attention, however, has focused on solar and wind energy. Meanwhile, the other big source of renewable energy, biofuel, has quietly elided closer scrutiny. This requires correction. With the purported goal of “saving the planet,” governments around the world are mandating increasing percentages of biofuel to be mixed into transportation fuels.

According to the International Energy Agency, transportation biofuel production in 2017 totaled 83 MTOE (million tons of oil equivalents), which represented only 3 percent of total worldwide demand for transportation fuel. Three percent isn’t very much. But we still have to grow the stuff that goes into biofuels. How much land are we already talking about?

When assessing how much land is already committed to biofuel production, theory and reality quickly diverge. Theoretically, it is possible that current levels of transportation biofuel production might “only” consume around 120,000 square miles of land. But two reality checks result in a far greater amount of actual land use: the fact that commonly planted transportation biofuel crops offer vast diversity in yields per acre, and the fact that biofuel, just like petroleum, is not used exclusively for transportation but also for direct heating and generation of electricity. According to the World Bioenergy Association, biofuel crops are already consuming nearly 550,000 square miles of land.

Why do we have biofuel mandates at all? The main justification is they’re “carbon neutral.” The logic goes like this: prior to harvest, growing biofuel crops produce oxygen and consume CO2. Then after harvesting and processing, burning biofuels consume oxygen and produce CO2. This is a seductive equation, especially if you’ve been convinced that anthropogenic CO2 is the ultimate climate boogeyman. But the practical realization of this equation has been an environmental and health catastrophe.

There are two main types of biofuel, bioethanol and biodiesel. The primary sources of bioethanol are corn and sugarcane; the primary source of biodiesel is palm oil. In both cases, the spread of plantations to grow these crops has devastated some of the most fragile ecosystems on the planet. From cane ethanol in Brazil, to palm oil in Indonesia, thousands of square miles of rainforest are lost every year to new plantations.

In 2016, for a few brief weeks, the world paid attention to the problems being caused by biofuel production. That was when forest fires raged across Indonesia, sending a toxic haze across thousands of miles, making the air barely breathable for millions of people in Borneo, Java, Sumatra, Singapore and Malaysia. The cause of these fires? Land owners burning rainforests to make room for palm oil plantations.

The idea that achieving alleged “carbon neutrality” is a sufficient benefit to offset the replacement of rainforest with monocrop plantations of palm trees and sugar cane is ridiculous. But even if biofuels somehow could be grown using “sustainable” practices, it remains an exercise in environmentalist absurdity. There simply isn’t enough land for conventional biofuels ever to make a meaningful contribution to meeting global demand for transportation fuels.

According to the Biofuels Digest, 66 countries have biofuel blending mandates. While this is hardly an objective source, it’s unlikely their information on mandates in inaccurate. The publication cites the “major blending mandates that will drive global demand” as coming from the European Union, United States, China and Brazil, and claim “each of which has set targets at levels in the 15-27 percent range by 2020-2022.”

Just accomplishing that goal, depending on the scope of these blending mandates, would require global production of biofuel to at least quintuple. Hence the ongoing land grab across the tropics, and throughout the temperate bread baskets, to replace forest and cropland with biofuel plantations. But what if biofuel were to replace all oil?

In 2017, global biofuels production was 83 MTOE (“million tons of oil equivalent”), which represents 1.7 percent of total oil consumption worldwide, which in 2017 was 4,800 MTOE. To begin to estimate how much land it would take for biofuel to replace just the oil used for transportation, which today is around 2,800 MTOE, you have to consider the yield per acre for the primary biofuel crops. For both bioethanol and biodiesel, 500 gallons per acre per year is considered quite good. This means that to replace all petroleum based transportation fuel with biofuel would require plantations consuming at least 4 million square miles.

To put this in perspective, the entire land area of the United States, including Alaska, is only 3.7 million square miles. And this is a best case scenario. While oil palms can yield slightly more than 500 gallons of biodiesel per acre, other popular biodiesel crops have much lower yields—coconut trees only yield 230 gallons per acre; peanuts, 90 gallons per acre; sunflowers, 82 gallons per acre; soybeans, 56 gallons per acre. Bioethanol yields range as high as 662 gallons per acre for Brazilian sugar cane, but only hit around 350 gallons per acre for American corn, or 275 gallons per acre for French wheat. And unlike biodiesel, bioethanol only has an energy content approximately two-thirds that of gasoline, meaning that it takes 1.5 gallons of pure ethanol to provide the same amount of energy as one gallon of gasoline. Finally, of course, global demand for transportation fuel is going to increase in the coming decades.

The worldwide impact of 550,000 square miles of biofuel plantations is is already an ongoing environmental catastrophe. Imagine multiplying that by a factor of eight or more.

In general, Earth’s finite biosphere continues to supply food for humanity with relative ease, because Earth’s 7.5 billion people only consume around 22 quadrillion BTUs per year (based on the average human consuming 2,000 kilo-calories per day). According to the International Energy Agency, world total primary energy consumption is over 572 quadrillion BTUs per year—25 times as much.

Using the biosphere to produce food will always be feasible, especially with the advent of high-rise agriculture and other fantastic innovations that guarantee food abundance no matter how many people eventually live on Earth. But it is not feasible to use the biosphere to power the technosphere—that is, the entirety of our mechanized civilization. Just replacing transportation fuel with biofuel would consume 4 million square miles, and transportation fuel represents less than one-quarter of global energy consumption worldwide.

It is a deep irony that the global elites who wish to cram humanity into ultra high density “smart cities” are at the same time advocating renewable energy that is, in all of its politically correct iterations—wind, solar, biofuel—consuming stupendous expanses of open land, and wreaking environmental havoc in the process.

It is also ironic that the supposed visionary focus on “renewables” is in reality so shortsighted. There is breakthrough potential from dawning innovations ranging from high-rise agriculture to fusion power, from satellite solar power stations to new, novel ways of directly synthesizing transportation fuel from atmospheric CO2, to innovations we can’t yet imagine. Why not use inexpensive conventional fuel in the meantime, and by so doing, more quickly lift peoples and nations out of poverty?

In our rush to avoid using fossil fuels, we are destroying the world in order to save it.

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Photo Credit: Placebo365/Getty Images

About Edward Ring

Edward Ring is a senior fellow of the Center for American Greatness and co-founder of the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013.

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