Over the past couple of years there has been much written about how the attempt by the US to substitute ethanol for gasoline was leading to higher food prices.  The ethanol is made from corn and as the demand for ethanol shot up (largely mandated by government requirements that gasoline had to have a minimum ethanol content and corresponding subsidies to the ethanol industry), this meant less corn was available for other uses in the food chain, including the feeding of livestock. Initially the ethanol content was to be 10% but in the past year the US government has raised this target to 15%. (See, for example, Ethanol Blamed for Record Food Prices in MIT Technology Review and The Case Against Biofuels: Probing Ethanol’s Hidden Costs at Environment 360)

Now we find out that ethanol demand in Brazil is causing environmental and health problems in the country.  Ethanol in that country is made from sugarcane and some two-thirds of Brazilian cars use ethanol rather than gasoline or diesel. As ar result, Brazil has been the most successful country in the world in terms of eliminating fossil fuels from transportation. (See our earlier post Brazil: Fill Up With Sugarcane) However, a recent study from an American university suggests that sugarcane farming techniques may be causing more pollution than fossil fuels. The authors of the study conclude that the burning of sugarcane fields prior to harvest for ethanol production can create air pollution that detracts from the biofuel’s overall sustainability. “…agriculture practices in some regions result in biofuels that lead to even more intense air pollution than petroleum.”

Toxic ethanol emissions have also become a problem in the US state of South Dakota. For the past five years in South Dakota, ethanol plants have been the leading emitters of carcinogens — toxins thought or known to cause cancer — having surpassed plastics manufacturers. In 2010 the state’s ethanol industry accounted for 40% of all reported carcinogens. Much of the growth in the industry’s carcinogen releases came from emissions of acetaldehyde, a byproduct of alcohol distillation. Carcinogen releases by South Dakota ethanol plants are increasing at about the same rate as plants in Iowa, which produces the most US ethanol.

Meanwhile, there is a concern that biomass for fuel could damage the UK furniture industry. UK government directives which encourage the burning of wood are hurting the domestic furniture industry.  Specifically, government subsidies encouraging power companies to burn wood are distorting the market for new timber, thereby forcing up prices for the manufacturing of furniture products. In a global economy this puts greater pressure on the ability of UK furniture makers to compete. An industry study presented to the government claims that wood prices have risen by 55.1% since the biomass subsidies were introduced. These high prices are severely affecting furniture production margins.

These are but a few examples of how government policies to promote the creation of substitute energy sources for fossil fuels lead to unknown and unintended consequences, whether it be the distortion of market prices or environmental and health implications.  Undoubtedly more of these examples will come to light as governments around the world attempt to implement policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.



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1 Comment on Reducing Carbon: Unintended Consequences

  1. Elroy Jetson says:

    What? No free lunch? So much for those corn dogs.