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This house would subsidize biofuels
This house would subsidize biofuels
Biofuels are sources of energy which come from living, renewable sources, such as crops, trees and even animal manure. Fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal, on the other hand, formed in the earth from decaying vegetation many millions of years ago, and cannot be renewed. In recent years biofuels have come to mean fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel which can be burned in engines to drive vehicles in place of fossil fuels like petroleum and diesel. Ethanol can be made from a variety of crops, such as maize or sugarcane, while biodiesel is often made from palm oil, soya or rapeseed (canola). In the past biofuels have not been given much attention (save in Brazil, which has little oil but much sugar cane to convert into transport fuel), but this is rapidly changing. As the price of oil has soared in the past few years and biofuel production methods have improved, the price gap has narrowed considerably although levels of subsidy are an important part of the economic equation. Biofuels have also been promoted as a way of reducing carbon emissions and so of tackling global climate change.
In most cases ethanol or biodiesel is mixed with regular gasoline or diesel – typically 5% or 10% of what comes out of the pump is biofuel, but it can be as high as 85%. The US saw a 14% increase in biofuel consumption in 2009, and the federal government wants 30% of gasoline to come from biofuels within 25 years. The EU has similar targets, although in Europe biodiesel is more important than ethanol at present. This topic looks at whether biofuels really are better than fossil fuels, and if governments should continue and develop policies to promote biofuel production and use. The specific arguments will vary a little from country to country, but the principles behind them should be relevant everywhere.
|Points For||Points Against|
|Biofuels help achieve energy independence||Biofuels are not in practice better for the environment|
|Biofuels are renewable and sustainable in the future.||Biofuels are expensive.|
|Biofuels are good for farmers and the economy.||Using food for energy reduces the food available to feed people.|
|Biofuels are better for the environment.||Biofuels are not the most effective focus for energy policy.|
Remember to choose a winning argument!
Biofuels help achieve energy independence
The reliance of America and its western allies on conventional fossil fuels, chiefly oil, is a major security issue. Currently the United States must buy most of its oil from authoritarian and often hostile states such as Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Iran, or from unstable places like Nigeria. 22% of US oil comes from the Middle East, 22% from Africa, and 19% from Latin America1.The past actions of OPEC and the recent willingness of Russia to use its supplies of natural gas to threaten European states both point to a need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels2. Oil prices often rise due to instability in the regions where it is produced, which has harmful impacts for consumers around the world. For example, in 2011 the invasion in Libya caused oil prices to rise because of fear of reduced oil production in the region The US and its allies lose leverage over many international actors as its hands are tied due to dependence on oil, as is the case with nuclear proliferation in Iran for example. The US Department of Agriculture determined that the US could produce enough biomass to meet 30% of its energy needs, which in addition to other forms of alternative energy could make a significant impact on oil consumption. Increasing the use of biofuels can therefore contribute to our security by ensuring that more of our energy needs are met from within our own country, reducing our dependence on foreign suppliers.Improve this
Attempting complete independence from other countries is impossible and undesirable – the world is now too interconnected and interdependent. Prosperity rests upon being able to trade goods and services widely with people in other countries and attempts to retreat from this free market will impoverish us as well as them. Nor are the USA and its western allies scarily dependent upon just one source for their fossil fuel needs – new countries like Angola and Canada have all become major energy suppliers in the past decade. In any case, America’s demand for energy is so great that there is no possibility of achieving energy independence through biofuels. F all of America’s corn was used to produce ethanol, it would still only meet 4% of energy demand.
Biofuels are renewable and sustainable in the future.
At present mankind is using up fossil fuel resources at an alarming rate, and often damaging the environment in order to extract them. If we go on relying on fossil fuels they will one day run out, and not only will our descendants no longer have viable energy reserves, but they will also have to cope with the ecological damage coal, oil and gas extraction have inflicted on the earth. Making fuel from crops provides a perfect, sustainable solution. Additionally, biofuels can be mixed with fossil fuels, and eventually replace them, without having to entirely change the infrastructure of countries. Other forms of alternative energy would call for new investment and development just to use them, whereas biofuels can slowly be introduced to cars in higher quantities, and gradually new cars will be designed to run entirely on biofuels. However, overturning the entire system would not be necessary, reducing the cost associated with using biofuels. Biofuels already have a great deal to offer today, but prospects for the future are even more exciting and deserve our support. New crops like Jatropha promise to produce much more energy from a given amount of land1. They also flourish without annual replanting or chemical inputs on marginal land. In the longer term, bio-engineers are working on producing "cellulosic" biofuels biofuels – in which the stems and leaves of plants or trees are used to produce ethanol, not just the fruits or seeds. Cellulosic biofuels would allow much more fuel to be produced from a given amount of land, and could also be made from the waste products of food or timber production, such as straw and woodchip 1. The future prospects for ethanol are great, and thus call for increased investment and development because only then will ethanol truly be a viable alternative.
For biofuels to be renewable and sustainable, they will have to be grown in mass quantities. Rainforests and grass lands, which naturally soak up carbon, will need to be cut down, ultimately making ethanol that much more environmentally irresponsible. While they may be renewable, the quantity that would have to be grown makes it an unreasonable solution.Improve this
Biofuels are good for farmers and the economy.
The growth of biofuels will be good for farmers, both in the west and in the developed world. In the 1990s and early 2000s farmers in the developed world have produced more food than the market required, resulting in large surpluses and very low prices. A great many farmers were driven out of business as a result, and few young people wish to try to make a living from the land. Meanwhile, surplus grain from America and the EU has often been dumped on markets in the developing world, harming local farmers who are unable to compete1. Both sorts of farmers stand to benefit from increased demand for biofuels, as farm incomes improve and market-distorting surpluses disappear. Taxpayers may also benefit as there will be less need to subsidize more prosperous farmers. Additionally, as more ethanol is produced, and consumption is incentivized, the prices will drop. Oil prices tend to fluctuate which can often have devastating impacts on the economy. Mixing ethanol with crude can contribute to overall decreasing the price of gasoline2. With more energy coming from ethanol, high oil prices and instability around the world will have a weakened impact on economies.Improve this
Biofuels will not guarantee a glorious future for farmers, either in the west or in the developing world. Oil prices have swung very widely over the past twenty years, and may well collapse again in the future, especially as investment in new production has been encouraged by recent high prices and so more oil is likely to come on stream in the next few years. If oil prices sink back even to the (historically high) level of $50 a barrel, then biofuels will look much less economic and farmers will go bust as a result. And agriculture in the developing world is held back by the web of tariffs and subsidies the rich world uses to support its own farmers, not by market failure1. Truly freeing the market in commodities such as cotton, grain and sugar would do much more to bring prosperity to many desperately poor countries than any promise biofuels may seem to offer. After all, if the USA or the EU really wanted to promote biofuels they would reduce their high tariffs on imports of cheap Brazilian sugar-cane ethanol rather than pay their own farmers to produce biofuel from much less efficient maize or rapeseed2.Improve this
Biofuels are better for the environment.
Biofuels are the best way of reducing our emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases responsible for global climate change. As with fossil fuels, burning biodiesel or ethanol to drive an engine or generate electricity releases carbon into the atmosphere. Unlike with fossil fuels, however, growing the plants from which biofuels are made takes carbon from the air, so overall the process is carbon neutral1. This means policies to increase the use of biofuels could greatly reduce overall levels of carbon emissions, and so be a major part of tackling global climate change. Since the international community has made reducing climate change a priority, with different climate conferences like Copenhagen, seeking energy alternatives should be at the forefront of their efforts. Biofuels can also help improve local air quality as mixing ethanol with fossil fuels helps meet clean air standards, and overall be one of the tools used to reduce carbon emissions into the atmosphere.Improve this
The idea that ethanol is carbon neutral is overlooking the carbon emissions associated with growing the crops (energy for the machines) as well as transporting them to and from the processing facilities. Ethanol production consumes 6 units of energy to produce 11. In no world is that efficient or better for the environment.Improve this
Biofuels are not in practice better for the environment
In theory biofuels appear to reduce overall carbon emissions, but in practice they are much less environmentally friendly than their boosters claim. Although growing plants absorb carbon from the atmosphere, the whole process of turning a seed into fuel is very energy-intensive. Modern farming uses large inputs of fertilizers, as well as fuel for running machinery and transport. Turning a crop into biofuel that can be used in an engine also requires a lot of energy. All of this produces additional carbon emissions and means that biofuels are often not much better for the atmosphere than the fossil fuels they seek to replace.
Some biofuel crops (e.g. sugar cane) do produce much more energy than is needed to grow them, but making ethanol from maize consumes 6 units of energy to produce 1– and it is maize-based ethanol that US policy is backing so heavily. The increased production of biofuels presents a growing environmental threat. If biofuels are to meet a significant part of our energy needs, vast areas will need to be devoted to crops such as oilseed rape, maize, sugar cane and oil palms. These monocultures are very bad for biodiversity, denying wildlife and native plants places to live. And as the crops will not be grown for human consumption, it is likely that there will be greater use of pesticides, herbicides and genetically-modified crops – all very bad for the natural environment. The greatest environmental threat will be in the developing world, where profits from biofuel production provide strong incentives to cut down the remaining rainforest areas to create sugar cane or palm oil plantations – a process which can already be seen in Brazil and Indonesia. Studies show that clearing grassland for crop cultivation produces 93 times the greenhouse gases that would be saved annually from the ethanol grown there. It is environmentally detrimental, and not efficient enough to justify the costs.
Studies are inconclusive about biofuel's productivity. The US Department of Energy reported that ethanol can release up to 67% more energy than it took to produce it, as well as ethanol and biofuels generally burn cleaner than fossil fuels1. It is worth investing in fossil fuels given these benefits, and through investment genetic engineering can be taken to a point, like with Jatropha that do not require the same degree of environmental destruction to be cultivated. Biofuel is not perfect now, but it is a good start and increased investment can address environmental concerns.Improve this
Biofuels are expensive.
Biofuels are only competitive with fossil fuels because they are heavily subsidized, especially in the USA where the farming lobby has promoted ethanol out of pure self-interest. Subsidies on biofuels at federal or state level cost American taxpayers something like $5.5 to $7.5 billion each year1. These subsidies have made more efficient Brazilian sugar ethanol unable to compete, and the US ended up exporting ethanol last year because it had too much. It costs $750 per ton of carbon dioxide reduced from biofuels, and there are simply much more cost effective ways of reducing emissions2. More costs will come if auto makers are forced by governments to build engines which can run on higher proportions of biofuel, as these will be passed on to the consumer in the form of more expensive vehicles. Overall, this subsidy and investment will be useless if the price of oil returns to its long-term average over the past 30 years, which will make biofuels uneconomic and ruin many farmers and industrial investors. Consumers are also wary of ethanol because it can be harmful to older cars, and it is more expensive even with the subsidy considering that a gallon of ethanol only has 2/3 the energy as a gallon of gas3. Between the amount of money the government has to spend and financial harms for people ethanol's expense makes it less viable as an energy alternative.Improve this
Biofuels are now an economic alternative to fossil fuels and with advances in technology and the scaling up of production, their price per gallon (or litre) will continue to fall as with all mass produced products1. Some subsidies to this investment seem highly justified, especially as they can replace existing agricultural support payments, rather than being additional expenditure. Biofuels are also a sensible bridge to a greener future, allowing us to develop a more sustainable future without unbearable economic or social cost. Unlike alternatives such as hydrogen fuel cells, biofuels do not need a completely different infrastructure to be widely adopted. Alternative energy is costly, but ultimately worth the benefits of biofuels.Improve this
Using food for energy reduces the food available to feed people.
Using agricultural land to grow biofuel crops means that fewer crops are grown for human consumption (or for feeding livestock). This pushes up the price of food for everyone but especially affects the poor, both in developed countries and in the developing world. Already Mexicans have found the price of their staple tortillas has risen sharply, as American maize is diverted to subsidized biofuel plants in the Mid-West. The prices of sugar and palm oil have also experienced steep increases recently. Food prices in 2011 rose 15% in a matter of months in a matter of months—partially attributed to biofuel production—throwing 44 million more people into poverty, and leading to unrest in Egypt, Algeria and Bangladesh. If biofuel production is promoted even more this trend will continue, contributing to increased poverty, malnutrition and suffering. Given that our energy needs can be met by fossil fuels and other forms of alternative energy, it seems immoral to divert our agricultural resources unnecessarily.
There is plenty of scope to produce much greater quantities of biofuels without squeezing food production. Many developed countries have been overproducing crops such as wheat in past decades, leading to programs such as the EU's set-aside scheme whereby farmers are paid not to grow crops on some of their land1. Agricultural productivity continues to rise, especially in the developing world where new techniques and strains of seed, including types genetically-modified to suit harsh conditions will have a major impact.Improve this
Biofuels are not the most effective focus for energy policy.
Biofuel technology may improve, but this is not guaranteed and it may require more use of genetic engineering than the public is willing to tolerate. Even if the industry does live up to its boosters' optimistic promises, biofuels are still not the right focus of our energy policy. They may be a little better than fossil fuels, but they will never realistically replace them entirely considering land production constraints, and their promotion takes attention away from more worthwhile approaches including wind, solar, and geothermal power1. Not only do biofuels let the auto industry continue with business much as usual, they also provide a cover for the fossil-fuel industry by prolonging the life of the oil economy. A much better approach would be to concentrate on reducing our use of energy more radically. This could be achieved through conservation measures, improved fuel efficiency standards, new types of engine, replacing much private vehicle use with public transport provision, better town planning, etc2.Improve this
Ethanol does not have to be the only answer, but one in basket of solutions. Ethanol could be used in addition to all of the approaches the opposition suggested to promote better energy conservation and use.Improve this
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