Do you want to fly or do you want to eat?

The title to this post may seem like an odd question, but I think it is an inescapable one, as I hope to demonstrate. The US Department of Agriculture has a mandate for a huge biofuel planting programme, the largest in the world in 2005. Currently around 13.5 billion gallons are produced per annum. The aim is to grow this to 36 billion gallons by 2022.

Then along came the US drought of 2012. US farmers are asking the USDA to forgo the biofuel mandate. It turns out that that they need all of that corn to keep food prices down.

The fact that biofuels compete with land for food crops and can produce food shortages has been noted by others. The US drought has simply demonstrated that the issue will affect rich and poor nations.

But the dream of using biofuels on a large scale for transportation has always been fanciful. US production targets for biofuels have been based on assumptions about technological developments and the availability and productivity of farmland. A recent report, using satellite data about climate, plant cover and usable land, showed that meeting current US biofuel production targets with existing technology would require “devoting almost 80 percent of current farmland in the US to raising corn for ethanol production or converting 60 percent of existing rangeland to biofuels.”

Continue reading “Do you want to fly or do you want to eat?”

How Kiwi know-how can save the world

This a guest post by Kevin Cudby, the author of From Smoke To Mirrors, reviewed earlier this week by Bryan.

I started researching my new book, From Smoke to Mirrors, back in 2007. I had been following alternative energy stories, and I was inundated with blogs and press releases from hucksters peddling silly ideas that would do nothing but separate investors from their savings.

So, in late 2007 I set out to document the strengths, weaknesses, and costs of all the options. I kept in mind that hydrocarbon liquid fuels (petrol, diesel, jet fuel, and fuel oil) underpin key elements of human civilisation, such as food production and distribution. Although the relative importance of cars, trucks, aircraft, and tractors might change over time, it will only be possible to eliminate liquid-fuel-related greenhouse emissions if we can find practical alternatives for every vehicle and machine. Forty percent of New Zealand’s liquid fuel is used on non-road applications, so it would be pointless to fix road transport and ignore agriculture, construction, aviation, and all the other non-road liquid fuel users.


My engineering background helped me sort the practical options from the vacuous nonsense. It had been a while since I’d worked with battery technology, and I enjoyed ferreting out detailed technical information about the latest rechargeable batteries, information their promoters would rather keep secret. I learned, for example, that battery-powered farm tractors would be about as practical as concrete helicopters. Then I moved on to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles—which, from the practical perspective, are looking pretty good. But hydrogen tractors are almost as impractical as battery-burners.

We know about practical processes for converting softwood chips into electricity, hydrogen, hydrocarbon fuels, and ethanol

It is clear that energy forestry is New Zealand’s most practical option for hydrogen, and for hydrocarbon fuels. New Zealand scientists knew about this possibility way back in the 1970s, though the technology for making trees into fuel was still being developed. Now, we know about practical processes for converting softwood chips into electricity, hydrogen, hydrocarbon fuels, and ethanol. No matter which technology New Zealand uses for road transport, our energy forests would occupy pretty-much the same amount of land. Researchers have calculated that the “energy profit” (or EROEI) of fuels made from wood chips will be better than that of our existing fossil fuels.

Perhaps the most exciting discovery, for me, was that radiata pine forests offer so many environmental side-benefits. I knew from personal observation that the native undergrowth in a 25-year-old radiata forest is far more luxuriant than the undergrowth in a 25-year-old stand of regenerating kanuka. But I am not a biologist, so I had to listen to the experts. I learned that converting steep low-quality grazing land into energy forests would improve biodiversity by creating habitat for a wide range of native species, from fungi to kiwis and falcons (the bird, that is). And I learned that foresters do not use fertiliser, and that third-generation radiata forests in the Central North Island are doing as well, or better, than the original plantings.

It seems New Zealand foresters have invented a biomass production process that can operate indefinitely. The technique has been thoroughly proven over many decades of real-world practice. We can share this expertise with other countries, which means Kiwi know-how can help knock a very large dent in anthropogenic greenhouse emissions.

There’s an excellent chance New Zealand will have the world’s cheapest renewable petrol and diesel

Even more exciting, there’s an excellent chance New Zealand will have the world’s cheapest renewable petrol and diesel. I’m guessing many New Zealanders will be very excited about that, especially considering what I learned about the future of conventional cars and trucks. Talking to overseas engineers, I learned about simple, practical engine and transmission systems capable of more than halving the fuel consumption of conventional road vehicles, without downsizing them, and without relying on battery hybrid systems.
So, although renewable petrol and diesel will be somewhat more expensive than today’s fuels, the improved efficiency of future vehicles will more than compensate.

We can be almost certain that sometime between now and 2030, the global economy will hit serious problems with the supply of liquid fuels. That is because fuel supplies will increasingly come from synthetic fuel factories. It can take up to six years to design, build, and fully commission a synthetic fuel factory, regardless of whether it makes climate-neutral fuel, or fossil fuel. Multi-national energy companies will be able to maximise their profits by delaying construction of synthetic fuel factories until prices begin to skyrocket. We know this will happen, but we cannot say exactly when it will start to affect global fuel prices. A growing number of analysts think it will happen before 2030, and the real pessimists think it will happen before 2020.

However, by 2040, if New Zealand gets stuck in and builds the necessary infrastructure, we can reasonably expect freight costs, and vehicle running costs, to consume a smaller fraction of the family budget than they do today.

There is no sign of any practical alternative for hydrocarbon liquid fuels for non-road applications. But these applications account for nearly half of New Zealand’s liquid fuel consumption.

So, while car and truck manufacturers are playing around with every technology that can turn a wheel, New Zealand should climate-neutralise its supply of essential, non-road fuels. This will keep us busy well into the 2020s. By then, thanks to advanced fuel injection and exhaust treatment systems, tailpipe emissions from conventional vehicles will be insignificant compared with pollution from tyre wear. All road vehicles have tyres, so environmental concerns will not influence our choice of cars and trucks. We’ll use whichever technology is the most practical.

From Smoke to Mirrors outlines a transition plan that takes account of these and other factors. I did not invent the transition plan. Associate Professor Susan Krumdieck did that, leaving it up to people like me to flesh it out and show why it is practical. Krumdieck proposed a direct attack on the problem’s fundamental origin. Fossil fuels cause greenhouse emissions, and greenhouse emissions cause climate change, so Krumdieck says we should simply ban fossil fuels. If you read From Smoke to Mirrors, you’ll see how simple and practical this would be.

New Zealand can do this. In fact, New Zealand should do this. We are a very small country, and if we cannot work together, how can we expect the rest of the world to do it?We need all our political parties to work out a multi-party agreement. This is about banning fossil fuels and developing the infrastructure to fully replace the billions of litres of fuel we’ll need by 2040. Left-right political questions, such as whether to build roads or railways, would be outside the scope of this agreement.

I’ve met young people who say: “We’re stuffed anyway, so I’m just gonna get as much as I can , while I can, and to hell with having kids.” That’s OK if there is no technical solution, or if the solution involves returning to medieval technology. But I’ve seen enough good technology to know the world will not go there. So, I hope my book will provide hope for those young people who have been led to believe there is no hope. My grandchildren’s generation will be the first to grow up knowing that we can solve this problem, because “From Smoke to Mirrors” makes the solutions readable and easily understood.

New Zealand can be self-sufficient for climate-neutral energy. Other countries can benefit from Kiwi expertise. This is a multi-decade project that could inspire every New Zealander. The question is whether our politicians are up to the challenge.

No Rain in the Amazon

U.S. writer Nikolas Kozloff aims to give a voice to the peoples of the Global South in his new book No Rain in the Amazon. At the same time, as indicated by the sub-title How South America’s Climate Change Affects the Entire Planet, he warns that what happens in the Amazon affects us all, wherever we live.

In this book the South is mainly Peru and Brazil. For the purposes of the book Kozloff traveled throughout the two countries, speaking with government officials, experts, environmentalists, and indigenous peoples. A specialist in Latin American affairs, Kozloff is not a scientist but is well acquainted with current climate science.

He has a lot to tell as he develops his major themes. Among them: climate change is already being experienced in the region and taking effect on poorer people’s lives; it poses further threats for them in the future; the Amazon forests are threatened by climate change, particularly drought; they are also severely threatened by the deforestation caused by humans; loss of Amazon forest is global in its impact because of the vital part it plays in the global environment; the Global North is complicit in deforestation and must help stop it.

In Peru the melting of glaciers carries serious implications on many levels, from  irrigation for farming and water for pack animals through to the long term threat to the water supply to Lima, a city of 7 million built on a desert.  Unpredictable and testing weather patterns are emerging in some regions. The Andean cloud forests, which carry out a vital hydrological function as well as maintaining extraordinary biodiversity, are under threat from climatic change as clouds condense at higher altitudes. Kozloff considers the drastic effects of El Nino events on Peru, including outbreaks of cholera and dengue, and points to the IPCC expectation that El Nino-like conditions are expected to become more frequent with continued global warming.

Kozloff doesn’t constantly enter scientific caveats when assigning the effects of climate change on the lives of poorer people. It’s reasonable that he doesn’t: the cumulative picture is strong, and he’s not arguing the scientific case but giving a voice to people whose plight is being ignored. He comments on the extreme inequalities whereby, in general, the people who are most at risk from global warming live in the nations that have contributed the least to the atmospheric accumulation of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. They also, like Peru, tend to be among the poorest and hence ill-equipped to deal with the changes they are facing.

Turning to the Amazon Kozloff points out that it contains about one-tenth of the total carbon stored in land eco-systems and recycles a large fraction of its rainfall. Drawing on the expertise of much-cited Brazilian scientist Philip Fearnside he explains how El Nino-driven drought is threatening the forest. The warming of sea surface temperatures in the tropical North Atlantic may also be linked to Amazonian droughts. Climate change is responsible for these enhanced threats. And of course the effects are not just local. Tropical rainforest literally drives world weather systems. The billions of dollars needing to be provided by the rich nations to tropical countries to sustain forests are an important and necessary insurance policy.

But the Amazon is threatened by more than climate change.  Deforestation as a result of human activity is the focus of a major section of the book.  Kozloff sets the scene for his survey by pointing out that the relentless slashing and burning of tropical forests is now second only to the energy sector globally as a source of greenhouse gases.  Powerful political and economic forces within Brazil are pushing deforestation, but the Global North is complicit  in the destruction. The affluent nations, acting through large financial institutions, fund destructive tropical industries and buy up the tropical commodities that are hastening the day of our climate reckoning.

The cattle industry accounts for 60 to 70 percent of deforestation in the Amazon. Kozloff recounts some of the brutal realities of ranching and its “insidious alliance” with politicians. Land ownership is often unclear and plagued by corruption. Poor workers can labour in conditions amounting to virtual slavery.  An activist like Sister Dorothy Strang who worked on behalf of landless farmers and advocated for sustainable development projects was eventually simply assassinated. She was an “agitator” who had only herself to blame for her death, said a local cattle ranchers’ leader.  The Brazilian state seems hopelessly compromised by powerful agricultural interests and finds it hard to police the Amazon and control deforestation. But financial institutions in the Global North, like the World Bank, provide key investment backing to the ranching explosion. Northern companies purchase leather, beef and other products and consumers buy them. Blame is shared.

The depressing news doesn’t end with cattle. Kozloff moves on to soy and its reach into the Amazon and the Brazilian cerrado, which covers one-fifth of the country and is the world’s most biologically rich savannah.  Soy monoculture liberates carbon from the soil of the cerrado and its advance also displaces cattle farming into new forest development.

Kozloff acknowledges that there are problems with the Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Forest Degradation progamme (REDD), not helped by the blocking by the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand of moves to incorporate protections for indigenous peoples into the programme. But he sees it as “the only game in town right now that makes preserving forests more economically valuable than cutting them down”. Which is the nub of the matter.

Kozloff is not impressed by the “clean energy” initiatives being pursued in Brazil, hydro-electric dams for electricity and biofuels from sugar cane for transport. Apart from the population displacement and road building associated with dam-building, the dams in forest areas lead to vast emissions of methane from the decaying vegetation.  Ethanol from sugar cane has been one of Brazil’s apparent success stories, but it involves destruction of the coastal Atlantic rainforest, one of the world’s top five biological hotspots. The nasty hell of debt-slavery operates in many sugar cane plantations. American agribusiness giants are now rushing to set up shop in Brazil to help greatly expand the industry. Much of the growth may be outside the rainforest, as officials claim, but it is planned to be within the cerrado.

If the Global North wants to avert yet further climate change, Kozloff says, it needs to get serious about the transfer of truly green technologies, particularly wind, solar, and waves. He points to the need for a “Manhattan Project” scale development of alternative clean energies, and the sharing of the new technologies with tropical nations such as Brazil. There’s little sign of such transfer taking place.  Indeed before Copenhagen the US House of Representatives voted unanimously to ensure that the negotiations would not “weaken” US intellectual property rights on wind, solar, and other green technologies.

Full of interesting accounts though it is, the book is hardly a cheering read. Not because nothing can be done for Peru and Brazil by way of mitigation and adaptation but because it is by no means clear that the Global North is ready and willing to provide the necessary assistance. Nevertheless Kozloff presses the case for action convincingly.

Note: There’s a Democracy Now interview with Nikolas Kozloff relating to his book here on YouTube. (It’s in two parts.)

[Buy through: Fishpond,, Book Depository.]