Blog: Dave LeggettEthanol/CO2 thoughts

Dave Leggett | 12 May 2006

I was chatting to journalist Julian Rendell yesterday and we got on to the subject of ethanol fuels and CO2 generally. He's being taken on a trip to Brazil by GM next week to see how sugar cane is turned into fuel for cars. We should get something out of it worth publishing on just-auto.

But this CO2 and global warming issue seems to generate a lot of media attention and confusion. And the more you delve, the more confusing it gets.

Let's - for the sake of argument - assume that man-made CO2 generation is indeed a bad thing and contributing to global warming and harmful climate change.

If you decide, as a consumer, that you want a low CO2 generating automobile, you may well opt for a Toyota Prius. But how CO2-intensive, or not, was the process of manufacturing that vehicle? What about the CO2 generated by shipping the car across the ocean from Japan? 

It gets worse. Aviation is a spectacularly dirty CO2 business, apparently. Cheap flights and growing air travel are therefore facing higher taxes on CO2 grounds. Get your cheap weekend in Slovenia while you can.

But how much damage do you really do by getting on a plane to Australia? I don't know, but it would certainly be interesting to know how significant your choice of vehicle really is when set against some of the other CO2 bad boys. At the end of the day, how much net environmental bad stuff do you generate as you go about your life, in totality?

And beware of false prophets. Green and friendly-sounding bio-diesel is only 5% derived from plants; the other 95% is bog-standard diesel. As the Tesco ad on TV says, every little helps, but wasn't it Benjamin Franklin who pointed out that being pennywise and pound-foolish isn't the best way to save money? 

And the thing to bear in mind about ethanol is that it is not magically cleaned up at the point of use; there's CO2 coming out of the tailpipe. The CO2 saving to achieve 'carbon neutrality' is a compensatory one based on the CO2 the plants absorb when they are growing out there in the fields. And here's a thing. How much land can we afford to give over to this stuff? From where I'm sitting there isn't much spare land locally for this. And I gather the ethanol fuel available in Britain comes from Brazil, so what about the CO2 generated in shipping it here?

And there are three harvests a year from sugar cane in tropical Brazil. It would be just one a year from sugar beet in Britain. Would it make sense on that basis (assuming that the land isn't already earmarked for yet more housing estates)? Heck, does it really matter what we do in Britain if growing industrialisation in China and India, combined with America's seemingly insatiable appetite for energy swamps our efforts?

It's a minefield of contradictions and conundrums. And just a bit depressing, along with a host of other world ills that the media is transfixed by.

Gavin Green summed it up superbly in his very readable column in CAR magazine recently.

"If we don't die from the bird flu pandemic, then an al-Qaeda bomb will surely finish us. AIDS and knife-wielding yobs are killing our teenagers - providing fatty hamburgers and brain-frying mobile phones don't get them first. And in the unlikely scenario of surviving all that, one of two scenarios will happen: a) the oceans will rise, the UK will be flooded, and what's left will be desert, or b) the Gulf Stream will be diverted by melting icecaps, and Britain's weather will be like Siberia's. Blimey."

Yes, Gavin, it's enough to give us nightmares.

But I enjoyed his parting shot:

"Me, I'm saving energy where practicable, continuing to cycle (I enjoy it) and recycle (it makes sense) and - as I brush my teeth in the warm glow of our low-energy electric light bulb - follow the earthly wisdom of those kings of comedy, Monty Python. Always look on the bright side of life."

Well said that man.


Colossal China powers on

I'm starting to get a small idea of the scale of things here in China, but really, I'm only scratching the surface of this vast country....


China Hot Pot

Given the startling complexity of obtaining a journalist visa for China - the code 'J2' is now indelibly stamped on my mind - it was with some surprise how swiftly I managed to sail through airport im...

Forgot your password?