It's the Environment, Stupid.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Can sustainable solutions go mass scale?

We see it with organic produce and "free-range" poultry. Scaling up and generating quantities for the masses to meet increasing demand often results in the same problems that the solutions created were trying to get away from.

Case study: Palm Oil.

The NY Times reports that this great sustainable energy solution has bred a number of nighmarish problems. The Netherlands began using palm oil (a biofuel) to run power plants (so much cleaner than coal.) This turned out to work so well that they started making machines that would only use palm oil. This trend spread and the demand for palm oil began to rise.

Enter the problem.

As the demand rises the supply must grow to meet it, so growers in Malaysia and Indonesia had to increase production of palm oil (their new and increasing source of cash). "Rising demand for palm oil in Europe brought about the clearing of huge tracts of Southeast Asian rainforest and the overuse of chemical fertilizer there. Worse still, the scientists said, space for the expanding palm plantations was often created by draining and burning peatland, which sent huge amounts of carbon emissions into the atmosphere." Not very sustainable.

The EU is now reconsidering their biofuel policies to take into account how the palm oil is being produced. This should also be cause for concern for Americans as in his State of the Union reading, the prez called for increased production of ethanol and biodiesel. Will this production come at any cost? Will it be okay to use pesticides and genetically modified corn in our fuel? Will our fuel crops be separated from our food crops? How much energy (coal burned) is being expended in the creation of these biofuels?

Biofuels are a good idea. The intention is to reduce dirty emissions by using a (theoretically) renewable resource. But if we're calling something sustainable, we should understand that sustainable has to look at more than just the end result and look at the entire lifecycle and the ability for that lifecycle to continue indefinitely (or for a while anyway.)

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