Judging by some of the comments from readers over the past months, I get the feeling a lot of people are far more up to speed than me when it comes to things that are good for the planet. However, I had a bad day at work the other day and spent some time bouncing my way through the Internet to take my mind off the office. It so happened I bumped into some interesting things in the way of “green”, specifically, the controversy over “biofuels” and what they could mean for Japan.
My journey started out with an article declaring that Japan will trial bio-ethanol with a view to meet a target of having 20% of all “gasoline” to be made up of this more “natural” product. I browsed on to a BBC article (Jan 07) that told me that corn prices are at a 10 year high. Not exactly exciting stuff on the surface though great for mid-Westerners with ridiculously red necks, I thought, and soon clicked on. It all eventually cycled back to the article on proposed bio-ethanol targets in Japan, with detours through rice, and tortilla (corn) prices.
Japan has been injected right into the biofuel debate, and has recently started trialling the bio-based “green” diesel and petrol in 55 “gasoline stands” around Tokyo. What does biogas mean for Japan? Will Japan be importing corn from the US rather than crude from the Middle East? It turns out the fact that corn prices are up has a lot to do with going green (as I assume many of you know ahead of me). You’ve heard of “ethanol”, right? (No, not the stuff they sell in green bottles at Heartland) Well, Japanese distributors of gasoline products have just announced that a mixture of bio-ethanol (ethanol made from corn and other crops) and gasoline were just made available at 55 gas stations in Tokyo on a trial basis as an alternative to regular gasoline. The alternative fuel will go on sale nationwide by fiscal 2010. At least that is the plan and the government is even looking at incentivizing the Japanese farmer to help produce the stuff, or at least to supply the raw materials – here we go again, another tail wagging the dog story.
It all initially sounds great when sold in terms of a reduction of stinky diesel and petrol exhaust in through the streets of Tokyo. I ride a (big) scooter so I know how smelly life is a meter above the road, and am used to clawing the black diesel powder mass out of my nose, but first up, is this “biofuel” thing really such a great idea in terms of greenness? The fuel still gets burnt, and it will still produce greenhouse gases as exhaust. This is a debate that has been going on in the US and other countries where ethanol has taken a step into the limelight, so I learned.
As said, I am a rookie on the subject, so bear with me – I haven’t done a thesis on this, just a bit of de-stress procrastinatory browsing. I guess at the end of the day, I am slowly becoming a greenie, as the evidence just seems too blatantly damning to stay with the status quo. Even if at this stage my “green” is more of a mental state than actually counting my carbon footprint on a daily basis, I admit that I need to take far greater steps to really improve on this. And I shall.
Anyway, there are plenty of interesting things for us to ponder when thinking about this increase in bio-ethanol destined for our roads in Japan.
Here’s one. According to this US article the impact of biofuels is not actually as green as we would like to think. Among the arguments for this, there is the theory that revolves around the miles to the gallon to be had from a pure gasoline drive and a cruise based on a mix of gas and ethanol. The author claims that his Honda Accord gets less miles to the gallon with the mix of ethanol/gasoline, which means more consumption overall of the gasoline (and ethanol) and meaning a worse output in environmental terms. Basically we are not seeing the wood for the trees in terms of the overall impact, especially when you bring in the energy required to grow the corn, harvest and turn the stuff into fuel.
An interesting twist the author also puts forward is that agribusiness is driving the push for ethanol and it is simply not the answer to a sustainable environment. In fact looking at the few sites ranked highly on Google that were pushing “biogas”, it did seem that they were Universities and organizations a bit too closely linked to the corn belt of the mid-West and those sun burned necks.
What is more, the author raises a very interesting point that by putting more land and its output to the production of “fuel”, are we not adding to the potential famine effects that poor nations suffer, as the world will be producing less food and more “fuel”? That does sound a bit weird. The impact to the land from biofuel production is a topic which bio-advocates will skip over when given the chance. Not only is corn is one of the planet’s most energy-intensive crops. Industrial corn production requires huge quantities of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers (derived primarily from natural gas) and petroleum-based pesticides like atrazine, a known endocrine disrupter. Soybeans need less nitrogen, but farmers douse bean fields with other nutrients and with chemicals like Roundup to keep them pest-free – all these chemicals go into our soil.
To push the point further, there is even much debate about whether biofuels actually do produce positive “net energy balance” after taking into account the amount of fuel that goes into making them. Although the calculations seem fairly straightforward, squabbles over numbers have led to a wide range of estimates for the net energy balance of even the most common biofuels — corn ethanol and soy biodiesel. Corn ethanol, for example, has a net energy loss of 29 percent, or a gain of 13 percent or even 67 percent, depending on whom you ask. The trouble begins with decisions over what counts as an energy input. Should some of the food a farmer eats be included? What about the energy used to manufacture the farmer’s tractor?
This ties in to the price of corn. The fact that corn prices are at 10 year highs really sucks for Mexicans, as tortillas (their staple food) have gone up 400% in price; and it probably is more than annoying for any Westerners on a tight budget who like their breakfast cereals. So where am I going with this? Well, is planting more food to be ultimately used to drive rich people like us to the shops, work or up to the ski fields really the right answer for our planet? The articles above brought that question into focus for me.
Japan seems to have bitten (or sucked) into the “bio-ethanol” story but even so, it seems a bit irrelevant to me here in Tokyo until 2010. I figure there are two critical factors in the overall equation that make this whole thing very theoretical at this stage: distribution and prices. That is, even if 55 gas stations in Tokyo try this out, it is going to be really hard to find a place to buy bio-ethanol for my scooter and even if I did find it, it would be double the price of nasty old gasoline. Hmmm. I probably won’t, but will the Japanese consumer buy into this?
By the way, as if you didn’t know, corn is not the only source for bio-ethanol. There are loads of other crops out there. Also there are even sources of inedible raw materials from which biofuels can be derived: soybeans in Japan or rice straw in China, palm oil in Malaysia and the most innovative – halophytes (plants adapted to living in a saline environment) from salty marshlands everywhere – the production of which requires no fresh water! But, is bio-ethanol really the way forward? Can’t they just make the fuel cells in battery-powered cars gruntier?
Will Japan be able to meet their target for fiscal 2010 where biogasoline is projected to constitute 20 percent of all gas sold? Is this Kyoto Protocol derived target even the right thing to be focused on given the arguments for biofuel inefficiencies?
If they do really want to meet those targets, it sounds like there will be major hurdles for the Japanese government to overcome. And why would the government want to promote incentives for domestic bio-ethanol production to farmers, when Japan is probably one of few countries around the planet with less land to spare than the Vatican? Won’t that ultimately mean higher rice prices or higher taxes to pay for more farm subsidies? More Thai rice imports and increasing my perennial anger with the zeimusho (tax office)? You tell me. I’m still learning.