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Archive for the ‘peak oil’ Category

This post is the occasion to continue the series of posts I initiated some time ago on the “let’s face the truth about climate change mitigation” theme. The ultimate goal of these posts is obviously not to suggest any definitive answer to the question: is it possible to mitigate climate change, only to give some insights into what can be done and would yield -to my humble opinion- effective results.

The AR4 WGIII published its results recently, and suggests clearly the extensive use of biofuels as part of the answer to climate change mitigation, in order to achieve CO2 emission reductions. The US launched this last couple of years a large program aiming at increasing significantly the production of biofuels (mainly from maize), and the EU also set targets for different time horizons: this topic has indeed become quite hot. This post will summarize the ideas expressed during two conferences I have attended to those past weeks. The first one left different speakers explain their opinion about the subject: Jeff Mc Neely, Chief Scientist World Conservation Union; Johan Hustad, Director, Center for renewable Energy NTNU-Sintef. The second conference was the third and last one organized this autumn by the department of Industrial Ecology of NTNU (cf this post for a comment about the previous conference, dealing with the results of the Working Group III of the IPCC).Our guest lecturer was Cameron Rennie, representing British Petroleum. He was Program Director for WBCSD’s Sustainable Livelihoods Program 2002-2005.

There are two key questions raised by the debate on biofuels:

  • Can biofuels represent a significant part of the energy market, and
  • Do they really yield greenhouse gases (GHG) savings, compared to conventional fossil fuels?

One can furthermore ask a third question, closely linked to the first one:

  • Can we produce both food for ouselves and food for our cars, in a sustainable way?

One has first to understand that biofuels are no technological breakthrough in themselves. Actually our ancestors used biomass (wood) to warm their caves, and today biomass is still used for 10,6% of the world’s primary energy production in 2002 [1], while renewables as most of us understand the word (ie wind, solar, hydro, etc…) represented then 7,8%. I do not consider nuclear as a renewable energy. So biomass is a common fuel for heat and power generation [2]. What is new with biofuels is that they are produced from biomass and transformed as liquid fuels that can be filled in the tank of our cars, in addition to or instead of common petrol or diesel.

To begin with, I would like to emphasize one point: we will never achieve a society based solely on biofuels. Simply because growing crops require fertilizers produced from oil, and because the world production would never be sufficient to feed both several billions individuals and their private cars. For example, to reach the 1997 global fuel production with biofuels only, 73 times the global stock of vegetation would be required. Biofuels are a complement to conventional oil; hopefully they will help towards a transition from oil to more sustainable energy sources. This way, Sweden has launched a pilot scale power plant running on willow, a plant growing commonly there. By expanding these methods throughout the country, their aim is to reach a fossil fuel-free society by 2025. Actually, the wood, pulp and paper industries account already for a substantial part of Sweden’s GDP (roughly 4%). The rise of the second generation of biofuels, based on lignocellulosic feedstock, could be a definitive advantage for this country that relies on sustainable production methods for forest management and resource exploitation [3].

But let’s go back to our introduction to biofuels. One can distinguish two types of liquid biofuels:

  1. bioalcohols, produced from sugar beet, corn, wheat, maize, sugar cane (leading to bioethanol), or woody wastes (methanol). This is a route chosen by the USA and Brazil, mainly.
  2. biodiesel, from palm oil, jatropha, rapeseed, sunflower amongst others; for example jatropha is grown in India.

Moreover, there are two generations of biofuels:

  1. the 1st one is based on agricultural crops, and might lead to ethical concerns related to the competition food/fuel. This is the one currently booming.
  2. the 2nd one is based on agricultural waste, wood and grasses. This generation is nevertheless still at the pilot scale and research is still going on in this field. The idea is to gasify the feedstock and produce different products from this synthetic gas.

You might have heard of the large deforestation that took place in Indonesia those last years: 9,8 m ha were lost in order to let 1,6 m ha of palm crops being grown. Environmentalists often accuse the biofuels industry for being responsible of this biodiversity destruction and CO2 release; nevertheless the truth is a small portion of palm oil production only is used for biofuels production; the huge majority is used to produce common oil one can find in food. Because of the environmental consequences of palm oil production, Sainsbury’s recently put a ban on products containing palm oil.

Now let’s go to technical details. How much energy is contained in a given quantity of biofuel? The following graph compares the specific energy content of different fuels.

Specific energy content of liquid biofuels

It appears clearly that different fuels do not have the same energy content. Oil has still the highest one, which is not surprising in itself, since it is a kind of concentrate of biomass. What is striking is that methanol and ethanol have a specific energy content nearly twice as low as crude oil; meaning that to get the same amount of energy from such fuels, twice the weight is needed when compared to oil. Olive and sunflower oil, on the contrary, reach almost the performance of crude oil. These oils are nevertheless not suitable for direct use in engines; although some people fill up their tanks with such products, the engine tends not to last very long… So one might argue that bioalcohols are not so interesting from a pure energy content point of view. Nevertheless, they are nowadays used commonly worldwide. Why? Because they can be burned in classical engines safely and without major technical fix, and their price is now competitive in front of oil, which price flirts with 100$ per barrel.

This is, I think, a reason for such a fast and enthusiastic development of liquid biofuels: it is merely a technological fix that does not force us to change radically our lifestyles. It is still possible to drive a common car with a few or no modifications (petrol/bioethanol mixes already exist and biofuels are nowadays common additives in the fuels available at filling stations). The core problem is not solved, only shifted elsewhere (to developing countries, mostly on a societal aspect as will be discussed later), or to the future (because GHG savings are not high enough to mitigate climate change).

Gaseous biofuels are an interesting alternative to natural gas. This option has already been chosen by Sweden, where some cities now have their public transportation network running on biogas (produced from anaerobic decomposition of household organic waste for example). This second graph shows that biogas has an advantage over natural gas: its energy content is slightly superior, and it is a renewable source of energy. Nevertheless, its use is limited by the efficiency of the waste management chain, and the availability of processing plants close to the using points.

Specific energy content of gaseous biofuels

Then comes the question of how much one fuel one can produce from agricultural crops. The US have for example chosen corn, Brazil sugarcane. Apart from the crop yields, and since the major (publicized) goal is to follow a carbon-free path, it can be interesting to compare how much one can harvest and transform into fuel first, and how much CO2 equivalent emissions are “saved” by the use of biofuels, compared to burning conventional oil. The answer to the first question points out clearly one thing: the US have chosen one of the worst ways. Corn actually leads to low yields, compared to other cultures (see next Figure); it is moreover not clear if it is beneficial to the environment as a whole, since raising corn requires large inputs of fertilizers and consumes enormous amounts of water. Furthermore, shortages of corn in the US for food (this product is subsidized, and that might be one reason for having chosen this route) have led to increased demand on the international level, hereby doubling the cost of the traditional tortillas in Mexico, as well as raising globally the price of cereals. As Monbiot writes in a recent essay,

The cost of rice has risen by 20% over the past year, maize by 50%, wheat by 100%. Biofuels aren’t entirely to blame – by taking land out of food production they exacerbate the effects of bad harvests and rising demand – but almost all the major agencies are now warning against expansion. And almost all the major governments are ignoring them.

Quantity of oil available per hectare cultivated

What are the actual CO2 savings? This question is tricky and is still subject to controversy. A survey [4] has shown that there is no definitive answer to this question since the savings depend on the technology used for growing the crops, the type of agricultural product chosen, and the geography itself. And as Monbiot states in his article, more and more publications demonstrate that the final result, when considering direct and indirect emissions related to production of biofuels (that is indeed the goal of Life Cycle Assessment), the final impact might be even negative compared to use of fossil liquid fuels, or even by simply protect the forests from clear cut [5]. But hey, a forest that is not exploited does not lead to profits, does it? So why would we protect it when it is possible to burn it, grow crops for fuels, and claim that we are green?

So seems the truth to be. Studies become more and more clearer: the first generation of biofuels does not solve the problems of energy security, of equity throughout the world and do not even lead to significant GHG reductions. The first generation of biofuels is just one more technological fix that fits to the current economic system requiring fast and reliable profits; with so many governments setting incentives for increase of the use of biofuels, as well as setting targets for the near future, the investors can find here a source of benefits as never before. In the meanwhile, people are dying in the developing world, become even poorer, and the climate continues its irreversible loop towards a complete disaster for our biosphere.

These targets have been for example set by the European countries, with different objectives for the 2010 horizon. The following Figure depicts the goals for 2010, as well as the achieved percentages of liquid biofuels in the transportation fuels. It has to be noticed that the goal for 2020 is 10%, which is obviously not attainable [6].

Targets for different European countries, 2010, and 2006 figures

To be rigorous, and because relying only on one side to get the information, it might be useful to know what the industry thinks about these issues of food and GHG savings. The conference given by Cameron Rennie provided with such an insight, and the point of view of someone that had worked for the World Business Council on Sustainable Development. But the arguments presented during his speech unfortunately did not provide the adequate picture of the reality; or it showed only one aspect of it. One can prove almost anything with numbers, if the reasoning is biased; only a thorough analysis of the arguments can sometimes underline the key error that opens to a deceptive truth.
I will not comment here on the motivation expressed by our lecture, “Putting the poor at the center of the value chain”, because this leads to the exploration of a more sociological aspect not relevant here; I will simply discuss some key slides that were shown.

  • First comes the question of food. As an answer, Mr. Rennie put out a graph showing the annual grain production in the US, which has been constantly rising since the beginning of the Green Revolution:

Yields in the US since 1890

Unfortunately for him, this graph does not seem to be relevant for me here. First, because it relates only what has happened in the US, which is far to be the case around the world; then because if this increase has been sustained, it is solely because of large inputs of by-products of the oil industry, that are expected to become more expensive as oil becomes a scarce resource; finally, seen on a worldwide scale (because it is at this scale that the biofuels market operates, isn’t it?), if the world grain production has increased, the per capita production has not at all followed the same pattern, as the following graph shows (sources: FAOSTAT for cereals production figures, and UN Population Division for the population).

Annual Per capita production of cereals, world, 1980-2005

As climate change will affect strongly the yields (Australia being already subject to crop losses), and the world population being expected to reach 9,2 billions by 2050, it is obvious that the per capita production of cereals will not increase much; rather decrease. So the argument of Mr Rennie does not resist further investigation: the first generation of biofuels does suffer from an ethical dilemma: should we feed our cars or feed the human species?

  • Concerning the GHG emissions, the only graph presented did not cite any source, or method used. Neither does it precise if these “savings” are direct reductions or cover the whole Well-to-Wheel chain (meaning the entire production chain, including production of the car, use, disposal, plus the fuel production chain). This should be stated clearly, as spotting out results without providing with any information on the methodology used can be perceived as suspicious. And as has been said previously, these results are still under discussion. To be even more critical, the 200g/km released taken as reference are above the 120g/km that a small European car would emit. So “savings” could actually be “losses”.

GHG emissions savings depending on the biofuel used

  • Finally, I will comment on the prospect that corporations have to include small farmers in the production of biofuels. Companies come to developing countries with experts that analyze the situation and declare that there is potential for substantial economic development, by shifting from traditional agricultural crops to biofuels crops. Nevertheless, due to the small fuel yields, no single peasant can grow enough crop to be economically profitable: biofuels require large-scale crops, meaning large infrastructure, and know-how that indigenous people seldom have. So the result is often destruction of the local traditional practices, as well as full dependence of the farmers on the international companies. It is unclear if the social benefits on the long term are real. At least profits are.

If you combine the increase of the oil prices and the increase of food prices then you have the elements of a very serious [social] crisis in the future,” Jacques Diouf, head of the FAO.

The competition for grain between the world’s 800 million motorists, who want to maintain their mobility, and its 2 billion poorest people, who are simply trying to survive, is emerging as an epic issue.” Lester Brown, founder of the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute think tank.

[1] Renewable Energy: Power for a sustainable future, 2nd ed., G. Boyle, 2004

[2] For a general overview of biomass and its use, have a look at this IEA publication

[3] Sweden produces 24% of its energy (2004) and more than 50% of its electricity (2005) from renewable resources, the major part coming from large-scale hydro. Source (in Swedish).

[4] “A review of LCA studies on liquid biofuel systems for the transport sector”, E.D. Larson, 2005

[5] “Carbon mitigation by Biofuels or by Saving and Restoring Forests?” R. Righelato, D.V. Spracklen, Science, September 2007

[6] “Biofuels Progress Report”, European Union, 2007

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Today seems to be the right day for publication of another synthesis of what has been available online in the newspapers this week.

For those interested in an even better review, covering the recent times and looking at different issues, I would recommend this post from Trinifar. Impressive but true.

I was astonished to discover three significant articles on the homepage of the Guardian Environment and Le Monde (in French): first, that a new report has acknowledged that the world oil production peaked recently, and that increasing gap between offer and demand will inevitably lead to catastrophic social and economical consequences (English version available there); then, that the UK was trying to withdraw from its commitment to reach 20% renewables by 2020 (an information confirmed the day after); finally, (see also here for a French version) that scientists have observed an increased rate of CO2 emissions since 2000, leading to faster and tougher environmental consequences. And today a new report reveals that our civilization and the world it lives in are in danger of disappearance. In a couple of number, it gives this (quoting from the Guardian)

· 45 thousand square miles of forest are lost across the world each year

· 60% of the world’s major rivers have been dammed or diverted

· 34%: the amount by which the world’s population has grown in the last 20 years

· 75 thousand people a year are killed by natural disasters

· 50%: The percentage by which populations of fresh fish have declined in 20 years

· 20%: How much the energy requirements of developed countries such as the United States have increased in the period

And in the meantime, when companies study new technologies, people are expressing their refusal to see large wind turbines developed and sold, on the excuse that it is visually disturbing. Well, one has to choose: whether we try to shift from fossil to renewable power, thus attempting to limit our greenhouse gases emissions (and accept a visual “insult”, which is to me acceptable given the other option), or we go on burning coal and gas and go to hell within a century. Fortunately, politics are beginning to address the question and locally things are changing. In France, this week after the “Grenelle of environment” talks, the government has agreed in partnership with environmental organizations to vote new laws aiming at setting the path to a more environmental-friendly society; although there is a lot left to do in order to actually achieve sustainability. It is too early to judge how these new measures will be implemented, but the example of UK is not a good one to be inspired.

Well, time for some synthesis: the news are accumulating, as they have always done, although at a higher rate now, and show that it is no longer merely our climate which is at stake. It is our whole civilization, and the majority of the biosphere on this planet (see here and there for examples) that are now threatened. And even though we thougt we would have 1-15 years to react and change the slope we have taken, it appears that all the scenarios imagined before have systematically been wrong, even the most pessimistic ones (here, concerning the Stern report), and see the above mentioned articles for the rising GHG emissions.

Unfortunately, as I often witness, people have two behaviors when confronted to the problem:

  • They do not know and prefer not to know about it. After all, we live in developed countries and it is far better to shift the problems to the other side of the globe rather than questioning our lifestyles
  • They deeply reckon that technology can solve everything. “Put your faith in humanity and in science”. Being a scientist, I totally disagree with this claim. It is not like switching off the light: finding new solutions or establishing new theories takes a lot of time. Implementing them worldwide takes even longer time. We are running out of time. Everything goes exponentially and we cannot afford to wait a couple of years more, because we will already have reached the tipping point. Or have we already?
  • As discussed previously on GIM, solving the carbon-rich energy might not be enough. Our problems lie much deeper in our society and our culture. Those who put their faith on science rather than considering the wider problem are only accepting to solve one factor, that might be overwhelmed by the others (like absolute consumption growth, population growth, and the associated resource depletion issues).

On Wednesday I attended a conference on the investments in renewable energies worldwide. A striking figure was the increase in investments the last 3 years: here is a graph of the amounts:

Investments in renewable technologies

The leading countries, depending on the origin of the fundings, are USA, Germany, Japan, and… China. Despite the gloomy award of being the largest GHG emitter worldwide, catching up the US at an incredible pace, they invest a lot in renewable technologies. The backside is that in spite of huge amounts invested, they still represent 10% of the total investments in energy. Meaning the rest goes to fossil energies. It is like buying tons of cigarettes although one would be in the final stage of a lung cancer… No hope to survive with it but still money flows. And as the following graph shows, it seems like too much faith is put on biofuels, while these are in their current version not adequate to solve both energy and food supply problems. Interestingly, the US and Brazil are among the largest investors in biofuels, seen from the Venture Capital/Private Funds source of investments (34 %).

Percentage of investments per energy source

So things are moving. We do not see it often because it happens locally; the US is the typical example. Things are moving but it might appear not to be enough, or maybe it’s already too late. But let’s hope and believe we can all wake up and gather.

One last comment about the articles above mentioned, dealing with the energy crisis bound to rise up in the coming decades. The one I read on Le Monde did not last very long on the web; after less than 24 hours published online it was moved into the archives, accessible only to paying customers; normally articles stay a couple of days or more online… I find it a pity that important articles like this one are not left at the forefront longer than that. In the meanwhile, I receive “last minute” exclusive mail to let me know that… Brazil will organize the soccer world cup.

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No matter what we can say, we are all addicts. And we ask even more of our drug every single day. Let’s first examine the characteristics of a drug and what makes you addicted, to finally draw this amazing conclusion. Usually, you do not like taking drugs because of the action to take them, rather because of the effects that these molecules provide you. When you are under the influence, then the world seems different, more comfortable, nicer, your life goes smoothly without problem, etc… So this brief introduction can allow for demonstration of our addiction to fossil fuels. That’s no news for some of you, but it never hurts to repeat it here. In this post, I will concentrate on oil.

7 a.m., you alarm clock rings. It is made in China from plastic, requires metals that have been extracted with the help of cranes, trucks, etc… You take an oil shot by switching it off, thinking that this day is gonna be another bad one. Then you wake up, go and maybe take a shower; hopefully your home sweet home is warmed and the water feels good. You use most probably electricity to warm your house; if it is generated from renewables your intake of drug will be reduced though. Your country relies on nuclear to generate electricity, that’s bad in spite of what they tell you: uranium has to be extracted, treated, shipped, and you will appreciate to take an extra oil shot for your day.

You like breakfast. If you buy organic food, then don’t forget it might have been shipped from another country; if you don’t then agriculture has relied on pesticides and fertilizers to grow you food. Take one more oil shot. You begin to forget that you woke up angry and feel better. Nevertheless you have already taken way too much oil during your life, and the effects are no longer felt during the morning. Time to go to work.

The public transportation system is too crapy, you can never sit down in overcrowded busses. Moreover it stinks and has no comfort. You forget that 50 years ago it would have been a luxury, and prefer to take your car. Double oil shot for you, but you feel so good in it, with powerful sound system and the freedom to go wherever you want to. Well, it might rather show up to be the freedom to get stuck in a traffic jam, and breathe particles increasing you risk for cancer, but you feel so well right now, why should you bother about your future? At work, you arrive and realize that someone (you?) forgot to switch off the lights the day before. And the whole building has been kept warm thanks to electricity. You indirectly take another oil shot. As the day goes, you take some more shots: the food you eat, the office furnitures you use, every single item you see and manipulate is made of plastic, or has been somehow requiring oil for its manufacturing or production.

At the end of the day, you feel stressed. 22.49, you take a pill to calm down, made thanks to by-products of the oil industry. But it does not seem to have any noticeable effect on you, you only think about your problems and how you could, for a while, avoid them. Yes, you have the solution: go on holidays far, far from your home country. Take another shot and good night.

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