Monday, 15 October 2007

Wanted - 9 New Planets

The recent postal disruption in the UK has served to change our habits – in the short term at least. One of the consequences of the postal disruption is that magazine subscriptions have not been delivered at their usual time. For me, whilst waiting for newer editions, I have been reading the editions that I have more fully. And what a world it has opened up for me!

In an obscure part of The Spectator of two weeks ago (the last issue to make it to me), is an article about soybeans (See Article). Actually, the article is about Biofuels, but the part about soybeans caught my attention. Apparently, if we wanted to produce enough ethanol to meet 10% of all present global energy demands, we would have to double the world’s farmland and plant it with soybeans. If we were to rely on soybeans to meet our present energy demands, we would need to find another 9 planets, as well as this one, and devote them to the production of soybeans.

This article points to three things. First, it demonstrates just how reliant we are upon oil-based fuels for transportation. Even if demand for transportation fuels were to remain constant, we would be unable to replace oil-based fuel for bio-fuels because there isn’t enough land on the planet to grow fuel (even if there would be enough water, sunlight, and so on). Of course, demand isn’t likely to remain static in the foreseeable future. The growth of China and India are already adding to the pace at which the demand for fossil fuels is growing.

This leads to our second point, which is that the article highlights the case for energy conservation. Conservation would allow the increasing demand for fuel in the developing economies to be offset – ideally, perfectly offset – by a reduced demand in the developed economies. However, this presumes that Europeans and Americans would get out of their cars and onto public transport to allow Chinese and Indians to use their cars. It is unlikely that such a switch will be seen without a major political effort to make it happen.

And that leads us to our third point – that the political leadership to make this happen doesn’t exist in Europe and North America. One way of enforcing such a change of behaviour would be to implement a Pigovian Tax on fossil fuels. The political will is not there to do so because we are so reliant upon fossil fuels.

This means that when politicians in Europe and North America make bold statements about the future use of bio-fuels, we can discount the statements as wishful thinking. For example, President Bush assured us in 2006 that the US will replace Middle East oil imports by biofuels by 75% by 2025. Even if there is enough land and enough water in the US to do this, one has to be sceptical about such a claim because we do not live in a world where everything else is equal. If there isn’t enough land and water in the US to deliver this promise, then is President Bush simply suggesting that the US exchanges its Middle East oil dependency with, say, a Brazilian corn dependency?

It seems that, in more ways than one, we are simply making a fragile system even more fragile.

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