Zero emissions bio-fuel myth ignores environmental costs of production – by Gwyn Morgan (Globe and Mail – August 1, 2016)

My last column pointed out that electric cars are only as “green” as the fuel used to generate the electricity they consume. For internal combustion-powered vehicles, much of the focus has been on trying to reduce carbon emissions by adding ethanol to gasoline and vegetable oil to diesel.

These “bio-fuels” are sourced mainly from cereal grain and vegetable oil. Ethanol is manufactured by fermenting and distilling grain, while vegetable oil comes mainly from palm trees. Bio-fuel production has become an enormous global industry producing some 100 billion litres annually. Mandatory ethanol and vegetable oil standards have been enacted in 64 countries.

But are bio-fuels really greener than the fossil fuels they displace? Answering this question needs to start with correcting the popular misconception that burning bio-fuel produces significantly lower emissions than gasoline or diesel.

In reality, there’s little difference. Essentially all of the hypothesized emission reduction relies on the premise that, since plants consume carbon dioxide to grow, the carbon they remove approximates the carbon released when burned. This is the basis for the bio-fuel industry’s claim of zero net emissions.

But just as the zero-emissions electric car fallacy ignores the environmental impacts of electricity generation, the zero emissions bio-fuel myth ignores the environmental impacts of production. And there’s a lot of evidence that these production impacts are causing very serious environmental damage, while also exacerbating global food shortages and price escalations.

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