A great deal of hype has been generated recently by the prospect of greener biofuels such as ethanol and biodiesel. The Senate Energy Bill passed in late June and endorsed by President Bush mandates the production of 36 billion gallons of ethanol by 2022, a more than 700% increase from current levels.
Many cite ethanol and biodiesel as the best route to a cleaner environment and increased energy independence. In reality, however, the potential of these new energy sources to halt climate change is small, while their use will undoubtedly exacerbate many of the problems facing the worlds working class.
Biofuels and the Environment
Although burning ethanol produces less atmosphere-warming carbon than traditional gasoline, its production requires massive amounts of fossil fuels. It takes the equivalent of seven barrels of oil to produce eight barrels of corn-based ethanol (CATO Institute, 5/8/06).
Many processing plants being planned and built to produce ethanol will be fueled by coal, which effectively erases any decrease in the amount of carbon garnered by using ethanol as a substitute for oil. This means that the impact of increased ethanol usage on climate change will be negligible at best.
In addition, the increased demand for corn and other biofuel crops poses a serious threat to precious natural resources. Rainforests in Malaysia, Brazil, and Indonesia are being bulldozed and burnt to make room for biofuel crops. Not only are these unique habitats home to countless endangered species, the destruction of vast swaths of these landscapes produces huge amounts of excess carbon.
Although the rhetoric surrounding ethanol couches the issue solely in terms of energy independence and environmental concerns, big business and the corporate politicians both stand to benefit from the expansion of biofuel usage.
For instance, Illinois Senator Barack Obama unrealistically claims that ethanol production is necessary not only for the future of our farmers, the future of our economy, and the future of our environment, but to make our country a place that is independent and innovative enough to control its own energy future (Pekin Daily Times, 3/16/05).
What Obama does not mention is that ethanols profits accrue to a small group of corporate corn growers led by Illinois-headquartered Archer Daniels Midland, (Ken Silverstein, Barack Obama Inc., Harpers Magazine, 11/06). As Tad Patzek of University of California Berkeleys Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering writes, ethanol production is based on “the massive transfer of money from the collective pocket of the U.S. taxpayers to the transnational agricultural cartel.”
Threat to Food Supplies
Ethanol and other crop-based fuels also pose a threat to food supplies, particularly for workers and the poor around the world. Mexico has already experienced major price increases for staples like corn and tortillas because of the rising demand for corn to produce ethanol. These price hikes and shortages have sparked major protests in Mexico City against the right-wing regime of Felipe Calderon (International Herald Tribune, 2/1/07).
These price spikes in the necessities of life for average Mexicans demonstrate the exploitative nature of NAFTA. Millions of Mexican farmers have been driven out of business under NAFTA by heavily-subsidized American corn.
Americas growing appetite for ethanol can only mean a more difficult, expensive existence for workers and poor worldwide. The proliferation of ethanol seems criminal when the grain required to make enough ethanol to fill an SUV tank is enough to feed a person for a whole year (Brian Tokar, Running on Hype, Counterpunch, 11/1/06).
The Way Forward
The dire threat global warming poses for humanity has been made painfully clear in recent years. In order to insure our survival, we must find a clean alternative to fossil fuels.
Ethanol however, is not the alternative; rather, it is the product of a system that puts short-term profits ahead of all other concerns. Major corporations and corporate-backed political parties are willing to risk the future of people all over the world for a few agricultural subsidies and increased quarterly earnings.
Ethanol represents a dangerous diversion from the pursuit of actual solutions to climate change. Although options like wind and solar power have enormous potential to reduce our dependence on carbon-producing bio and fossil fuels, they are not given the same attention as ethanol because they might not generate as high profit margins. This sort of narrow, self-interested calculation, which is the essence of capitalism, is what stands in the way of meaningful change on this issue.
Workers and young people must stand up to big business and the corporate political parties and demand a change in this system that will sacrifice the future of humanity for a few measly dollars in the present. Only a socialist economy in which essential resources are democratically controlled by the whole of society – rather than by a few corporations who put profit above all else – can solve the crisis of climate change.