Seanad debates

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Energy (Biofuel Obligation and Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2010: Second Stage


4:00 pm

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)

I welcome the Minister to the House for this interesting debate. I mentioned to him previously that when I was interviewed on television three years ago, I was asked what business I would go into if I was going into business now, and I said I would go into sustainable energy. After that interview, I was impressed to receive many letters and a great deal of information from enthusiastic people throughout the country who have all sorts of ideas in respect of sustainable energy. Since then, I have been approached by people involved in nuclear energy who believe that sustainable energy should include nuclear energy. While that is not the subject of our discussion, it is a topic of interest.

It strikes me that there is insufficient debate on the many side effects of growing bio-fuels. Enthusiasts, including those in the green movement, are quick to advocate the purported great benefits of such fuels. The green movement uses fear as one of its main offensives as it seeks to have governments change their policies, even in cases where the theory behind their initiatives is flawed.

I note the Minister's claim that "the obligation [for bio-fuels] will be on the companies in question and at no cost to the taxpayer". While his statement is correct, the cost will borne by the consumer, specifically the person who is travelling. This cost is in addition to the carbon tax which will be introduced next month. While these green ideas look good on paper, we cannot accept as fact the arguments used to promote the green agenda. We should consider, for example, the numerous ways in which a person who is travelling by bus to collect his or her social welfare payment will be taxed.

Although the carbon from bio-fuels does not contribute directly to global warming when such fuels are burned, there are several well known side effects such as competition with food crops, the need to clear virgin land to grow them and the energy costs of processing them. An interesting study was published recently by Dr. Jerry Melillo of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole on how bio-fuels could change world agriculture during the 21st century. It is worth noting that 53 scientists affiliated to the laboratory have been awarded the Nobel Prize. Dr. Melillo's study concentrates on the likelihood that bio-fuels will be made from whole plants such as fast growing grasses, rather than the food cum bio-fuel crops used today. The study shows that the widespread growth of bio-fuel crops is likely to cause a net global release of greenhouse gases during the first half of the century, as land is cleared and fertilisers are scattered liberally. I had not heard this theory previously. According to Dr. Melillo, in the correct circumstances the CO

A recent United Nations report states the use of maize for bio-fuel in the United States can also be inefficient. Properly planted and processed, maize for bio-fuel contributes to the cutting of emissions but, done poorly, this form of bio-fuel is more polluting than petrol. The report also found that the use of bio-diesel from palm oil plantations grown on deforested peatlands resulted in greenhouse gas emissions up to 2,000% greater than those generated from fossil fuels. These observations must be taken into account in the long term.

Two papers published last year in the journal Science show that carbon released by ploughing new farmland to grow bio-fuels takes many years to repay. As the green movement argues, preventing climate change requires immediate and significant cuts in emissions. On that basis, the current policy does not make sense.

When one considers the other greenhouse gases produced by growing crops, the position appears to be even more futile. Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen has estimated that emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas arising from the use of nitrogen fertilisers, wipe out all the carbon savings produced by bio-fuels. This finding is not taken into account in overall calculations. Many experts calculate that the gross energy input in bio-fuels, including fertilisers and so forth, is greater than the energy produced. If that is the case, bio-fuel production does not make sense. Dr. Tim Searchinger of Princeton University has made the point that the rules for assessing compliance with the Kyoto Protocol are biased in favour of bio-fuels because they fail to account for emissions from land cleared to grow such fuels.

Last year food riots occurred in Morocco, Mexico, Mauritania, Senegal, Uzbekistan and Yemen, among other countries. Mr. Jean Ziegler, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, has called for a five year moratorium on bio-fuel production. His call is based on the view that a moratorium would also protect the interests of some of the world's most vulnerable citizens.

At the start of this month the World Bank, the United Nations and politicians from a number of countries met in London to discuss food security. Considerable concern was expressed that global population growth, climate change, pressure on water supplies and increasing use of bio-fuel crops would spark a new wave of food shortages and rising prices in the developing world. This view is supported by figures from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization which indicate that the number of starving people has risen from 830 million to 1 billion in the past two years. I recall citing in a previous debate the figure that 830 million people go to bed hungry every night. The World Bank is stepping up its investment in agriculture after decades of largely ignoring the sector. In other words, it has decided action must be taken on this issue.

I question whether the Minister's initiative will spur domestic production of bio-fuels. Perhaps instead of stimulating domestic production of bio-fuels, businesses will source these products from where it is cheapest. If we end up importing all our bio-fuel needs from South America, the carbon footprint from transport will surely increase. Visiting Brazil three years ago I was astounded to discover that every petrol station sold both fossil fuels and bio-fuels. When I asked about the issue, I learned that bio-fuels accounted for approximately half of fuel consumption. As has been noted, however, the generation of bio-fuels in Brazil is causing significant damage to rainforests.

A recent report by the United Nations environment programme states categorically that bio-fuel adoption targets in developed countries such as Ireland are contributing to land use changes in developing countries. This argument has been made by environmental groups which state bio-fuel demand is indirectly contributing to deforestation in countries such as Brazil and Indonesia.

I question whether the crops used to make bio-fuels are an emerging market and inexpensive. Figures published by the International Monetary Fund show that oilseed rape cost $398 per tonne in October 1999. By September 2009, however, the average price had increased to $857 per tonne. Are bio-fuels as cheap as the Government contends or will prices continue to rise? Their price appears to be increasing much faster than prices for other commodities.

The national bio-fuels strategy has been a disaster. Having set a target of achieving a 2% bio-fuels penetration rate by 2008, it had only reached a figure of 0.5% in 2007. On what basis will the new strategy be different?

We must consider the massive impact of bio-fuels on water consumption, which is a major challenge. It is estimated that it takes more than 9,000 litres of water to grow sufficient soy to produce one litre of bio-diesel and up to 4,000 litres for corn to be transformed into bio-ethanol. While bio-fuels have been strongly criticised for their role in causing food shortages, the strain they place on water resources should also be acknowledged. The figures I have, which I hope are correct, suggest the production of beef does not make sense as it takes 10,000 litres of water to produce a certain number of kilograms of beef. The world has not faced up to the water shortage. I know it is of concern to the Minister and I have heard such concern expressed by members of the Green Party. We must seriously examine it. We are not giving enough attention to the water problem. We have a different problem in the west with water.

Should we not examine producing electricity at local power stations using wood, straw, seed oils and other crop or waste materials which the United Nations says "is generally more energy efficient than converting biomass to liquid fuels"? Going green is all very admirable but we must seriously question whether bio-fuels will make things worse rather than better. Friends of the Earth states that bio-fuels often lead to more emissions than the petrol and diesel they replace. There is a real danger that the current fixation on bio-fuels could be misplaced and we should not be bullied into supporting something which lacks much crucial scientific support. Doing so could have serious consequences in the future.

I understand from where the Minister is coming and what he is trying to achieve but I question in general whether this is the right direction to go. Are there other solutions by which we could achieve what we are setting out to do? The Minister's heart is in the right place and all of us are aiming at the right direction but I question whether this is the right thing to do.


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