doing well while doing right

Timothy E. Wirth, C. Boyden Gray and John D. Podesta
describe the great potential for energy security and the environment in growing one’s own fuel

Agricultural trade barriers remain one of the most stubborn and persistent obstacles to a truly open and fair global trading system. Despite high-minded rhetoric about the benefits of free-market principles, Western countries have resisted the removal of the $300 billion a year in subsidies that long have tilted the system in their favour. These subsidies promote market inefficiencies and cripple the ability of some of the poorest nations on Earth to compete, even in their own markets.

These policies are not just inefficient and contrary to our stated beliefs in free and fair trade; they are also a cruel obstacle to progress for farmers in other lands who are struggling to make a living. Dairy cows in Europe and Japan receive more each day in government subsidies than the rural poor are able to earn in the developing world.

Technical advances in the science of bioenergy – the conversion of agricultural wastes and other organic material to fuels and other products – offer a way out of this seemingly intractable conflict and could have surprising payoffs in other areas as well: economic growth in the developing world, reductions in the emission of greenhouse gases, and easing the world’s dangerous dependence on oil.

Multiple benefits
Bioenergy – growing one’s own fuel – offers the opportunity to do well while doing right. For several decades, the United States has promoted development of ethanol because it offers multiple national benefits – aiding farmers, the environment and the nation’s energy security. But we have only scratched the surface of bioenergy’s promise.

Most ethanol is produced from corn, using only the starch in the kernels. But new conversion technologies could lead to the cost-effective use of a wide variety of feedstocks and agricultural waste products like corn stalks and wheat straw to produce ethanol and other products, such as chemicals and plastics, that are currently derived from fossil fuels. These technologies allow farmers to harvest double dividends – selling cash crops like corn and wheat, and converting the leftover ‘waste’ to fuel for the transportation sector.

Bioenergy’s potential is huge – economically and environmentally. Currently, ethanol accounts for less than 2 per cent of US gas consumption. The new bioenergy technologies could dramatically increase that figure, producing as much as 150 billion litres – the equivalent of one quarter of our current gasoline use. Bioenergy will also help prevent further global warming because the carbon dioxide emitted as it is produced and used is absorbed by the plants as they grow. The net greenhouse gas emissions are near zero.
Bioenergy’s potential is huge – economically and environmentally
Moreover, bioenergy could spur economic development around the world. Advanced ethanol technologies will provide poor countries with a new way to meet transportation needs that are necessary prerequisites to economic progress and growth. With the right technology and basic training, these countries will be able to grow their own fuels, allowing them to redirect scarce foreign exchange earnings away from imported oil to more productive national investments – including critical social investments in health, education and welfare.

Productive subsidies
The West is unlikely to abandon agricultural subsidies – but it can direct them in a much more productive and less destructive manner. By shifting subsidies from food crops to bioenergy production, the United States and others can support farm income, reduce oil dependence and make environmental progress, both at home and abroad.

With gasoline prices reaching all-time highs in many areas, climate change threatening the stability of the world’s ecosystem and the dangers of persistent global poverty increasingly clear, industrialized nations should lead the world toward the rapid development of clean, abundant biofuels

Timothy E. Wirth is President of the United Nations Foundation; C. Boyden Gray, a partner at Wilmer, Cutler & Pickering, was Counsel to former President George H.W. Bush; and John D. Podesta, President of the Center for American Progress, was Chief of Staff to former President Bill Clinton.

PHOTOGRAPH: Jacky Sawalha/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial | Key to development | The energy challenge | Plant power | Bioenergy: doing well while doing right | New energy for development | People | Delivering Change | Benign growth | Green energy | At a glance: Energy | Sustainable Dreams | Brightening the future | Greening oil | Blue-sky thinking | Books & products | New energy to assault poverty | New energy entrepreneurs | Time to get serious | Breaking the ice | In my lifetime – 100% renewable| Slimming the waste

Complementary issues:
World Heritage and Protected Areas, 2003
Globalization, Poverty, Trade and the Environment, 2003
Climate and Action, 1998
Climate Change, 1997