Can you name one issue that every major political party in Canada and every single presidential candidate in the U.S. agrees on? Hint: it’s not health care, it’s not education and it’s not Iraq.

It’s ethanol, blessed by all as a keystone of energy, agricultural and environmental policy. You’d be hard-pressed to find a mainstream politician on either side of the border—or even on the other side of the world—who hasn’t wholeheartedly embraced the idea of making “biofuels” like ethanol out of corn, wheat, canola, palm oil and sugar cane.

Our Conservative federal government has stipulated that biofuels must account for five percent of gasoline sold by 2010, and has earmarked $200 million in incentives to farmers. The Liberals and the NDP would both double this goal to 10 percent. The European Union, meanwhile, wants 10 percent by 2020, and Brazil already requires at least 20 percent. And in the U.S., every single presidential candidate, from McCain and Huckabee to Clinton and Obama, has touted ethanol. Even George W. Bush loves it, endorsing a law stating that it must account for 24 percent of transport fuels by 2017.

Funny that the exact same chemical—grain alcohol—that our leaders will proudly abstain from drinking, they will enthusiastically pour into the engines of the economy.

And no wonder: biofuels sound like such a nice idea. Instead of using dirty black fossil fuels, tainted by war in the Middle East, human rights atrocities in Africa and ecological devastation in Alberta, we could grow fresh fuels out of clean, green plants on our peaceful prairies. We could reduce our dependence on foreign oil, boost domestic agriculture and be kind to the environment all at the same time. Farmers, industrialists and environmentalists all kept happy. Win-win-win.

If only it were that simple. The reality is that biofuels come with nasty collateral damage.

The idea is that biofuels will help us curb global warming because they are theoretically “carbon neutral”: instead of releasing old carbon, locked away for millions of years in fossils, we could harvest new carbon, absorbed from the air during the growing season by plants, then simply returned to the atmosphere when the biofuel is burned. No muss, no fuss.

There are plenty of holes in this theory. Biofuel crops devour massive quantities of fresh water. Rainforests are razed and wetlands drained in the tropics to grow sugar cane and palm oil. Corn and canola crops in the north are carpeted with nitrogen-rich fertilizers, which wash through rivers and spawn blooms of toxic algae in the Gulf of Mexico.

Worse, biofuels are probably not “carbon neutral” at all. Clearing forests and drying wetlands releases huge quantities of carbon into the air. A careful analysis of the entire biofuel production chain by Nobel-prize winner Paul Crutzen reveals that when you factor in the greenhouse gases released by fertilizers, some biofuels are actually worse contributors to global warming than fossil fuels. The oil and gas required to power the farm machinery, refineries and transport add to the problem.

Plus there’s the question of food: there’s something profoundly immoral about feeding crops to cars instead of people. Already global food prices are soaring, and every credible authority—from the UN to the IMF—has fingered the rise in biofuels as a key factor.

Moreover, it’s unquestionably impractical: there is simply not enough land to meet these targets. Using the entire American corn crop would only offset 20 percent of annual fuel use. Turning every single arable acre on earth over to biofuels would still not offset our current usage of fossil fuels.

Biofuels are a handy way for politicians to appear green without actually being so. Instead of tackling the real challenges, like building efficient public transport, tightening auto efficiency requirements and investing in genuinely renewable energy sources on a large scale, they can just take the path of least resistance and replace a fraction of unpopular old fuels with deceptively different new ones.

Alone in Canada, only the Green Party has rejected biofuels. And, notably, John McCain (who was concerned about climate change long before most politicians came on board) dismissed them as useless in 2003—but has since endorsed them after taking a hit in the polls.

Biofuel may be political holy water, but it’s environmental folly. There’s little reason to believe it accomplishes anything but distracting us from the important issues and delaying real action.

(My editorial from the May Issue of This Magazine.)


Three notes I’d like to make:

1. Giving credit where credit is due: This was preened by my friend and former co-editor at The Varsity, Graham F Scott, who taught me more than almost anybody about the joys and pains of editing.

2. As with anything in print journalism, there’s never enough space to say everything you want to say. If I could have rambled on for another page, I would have mentioned this: As fuel experts are quick to point out, not all biofuels are created equal. Canola, for example, may result in a net release of more greenhouse gases during its production than are released by fossil fuels. Biofuel developers believe that cellulosic ethanol, derived from woody plants, could be a wonderful alternative to corn-based ethanol; it wouldn’t detract from food supplies, and possibly could be grown on marginal land (and not pristine arable soils). But I’m far from convinced. It’s much harder to break down cellulose and woody materials than sugary substances (you need extra enzymes to break down woody plants, like grasses – ask any cow). Engineers hope they can use enzymes harvested from the guts of termites, for example, but I doubt they will be able to do this economically any time soon.

There is only one kind of biofuel that I’ve heard about so far that I’ve thought could actually be a good idea: algal biofuels. Just maybe. 

3. Almost always, the best way to make your point is with comedy. The Onion has thrived on this notion for over a decade. 

Last month Steven Colbert summed up the ethanol issue perfectly:

I’m concerned that people won’t shut up about climate change. Look, we solved the energy crisis. The answer was ethanol. Corn plus magic equals ethanol! Ethanol makes us feel like the energy crisis has been solved and allows us to continue living as we always have: in our cars. The great thing is that not only do we not have to sacrifice, neither do the oil companies. To get 100 gallons of ethanol you have to burn 129 gallons of fossil fuels. We can break our addiction to fossil fuels without sacrificing our dependence on fossil fuels. When nothing feels like you’re doing something, you can’t get more energy efficient than that.