Thursday, September 21, 2006

Thomas Friedman on Ethanol

Thomas Friedman promoted the use of sugar ethanol in his column in yesterday's New York Times.

Friedman begins by saying he asked Brazil's secretary of the environment whether the U.S. tariff on ethanol is "just stupid or really stupid." Friedman points out that Brazil's sugar ethanol provides eight times the energy needed to produce it, while America's corn ethanol provides only 1.3 time the energy needed to produce it. He claims that importing sugar ethanol is can help alleviate poverty in tropical countries and provide a sustainable source of fuel for America. Needless to say, he agrees with the secretary of the environment - who is also a pioneer of Brazil's ethanol industry - that our tariff is "really stupid."

Thomas Friedman does recognize the environmental dangers of ethanol production. For example, he says that development of sugar plantations could destroy the ecology of the cerrado, the Brazilian savannah, which is extremely rich biologically. He notes that environmentalists are already planning a conference on the impact of biofuels, and he says Brazil should map the land that should be protected and never used for ethanol production, otherwise battles with environmentalists will cripple the industry.

But Thomas Friedman does not recognize the impact of ethanol on world food supplies. Since Americans can afford to spend more money feeding their cars than most people in the world can
afford to spend feeding themselves, a massive shift to ethanol would increase world hunger dramatically.

This doesn't apply to ethanol made from agricultural waste. It does apply to Friedman's idea that we use agricultural land to grow crops for energy rather than for food.

Lester Brown, founder of the Earth Policy Institute, has pointed out that "The grain required to fill a 25-gallon SUV gas tank with ethanol will feed one person for a year. The grain to fill the tank every two weeks over a year will feed 26 people."

Doing a simplified calculation assuming that Americans have 200 million cars, we find that the corn ethanol needed to run our cars would be enough to feed something on the order of 5 billion people. And producing the corn ethanol needed to run all the world's cars would clearly take more than the world's total agricultural capacity.

I have not seen figures about sugar ethanol, but it is obvious that producing enough ethanol to fuel our cars would divert much of the world's agricultural land away from food production.

We would raise the price of food for everyone in the world - raise the price high enough that the poor would not be able to buy enough food - in order to benefit the 20% of the world's population who have access to cars - and particularly to benefit Americans, 5% of the world's population who consume almost as much gasoline as the rest of the world combined.

With the world's gasoline consumption growing rapidly, the idea that ethanol can provide a significant portion of our fuel seems to be "really stupid. "

See Thomas Friedman, "Dumb As We Wanna Be," New York Times, September 20, 2006.

Cellulosic ethanol is touted as the new panacea that will give us energy from agricultural wastes rather than from food, but a more recent article in the New York Times shows that its potential is also limited:

"A cellulosic ethanol process would raise the ethanol yields from sugar cane by about one-third by using parts of the sugar plant that are now thrown away as waste. For corn wastes, the number is similar."

Cellulosic is a useful source of energy but quite limited.

"Engineers Still Chasing The Dream of Ethanol Made With Cellulose," New York Times, April 17, 2007, p. C5.


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