The move from fossil fuels to crop-derived fuels sounds good — until a crop failure or two occurs after we’ve stopped pumping or digging fossil fuels out of the ground. Then we might find them much less attractive.
Compact, energy-rich portable fuels are the basis for nearly all of agriculture, with the exception of grazing, though getting grazers to market without trucks would be a challenge. The thought of millions of cattle and sheep being herded into Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal has a certain comic appeal, in reality it’s not going to work.
Electrically powered vehicles and equipment have obvious benefits, though the current versions have obvious flaws. Coal is still required to fire the boilers at electrical generation plants and there isn’t enough electrical grid capacity to distribute the power once available. However, given enough time and incentives, the world will make the shifts necessary to reduce emissions from many fossil fuels. Eventually hydrogen created from natural gas via ammonia will likely be a dense enough energy source to haul around in vehicles and machinery.
The funny thing about that process is that, on the way to becoming nice clean hydrogen, it must first become our favourite source of nitrogen fertilizer, the very one being blamed for adding to the global emissions tally.
Should the flow of portable fuel dry up, so will the global economy. Natural gas-derived energy in some form will help, but gasoline and diesel will be needed for some time to come.
And what about the future availability of diesel? The outlook isn’t rosy. Fossil fuel refiners aren’t building new facilities and they are closing older ones. This, while demand for fuel isn’t falling and isn’t even likely to peak globally for years.
Fortunately, new canola crushing facilities are being built on the Prairies as fast as the labour pool can be tapped and drained. Much of the biofuel produced will be channelled into transportation and other uses around the globe. It might eventually even fuel farm equipment on the fields where it is grown.
But that virtuous cycle will only work until the rains fail to come, a volcano blocks the sunlight for a season or two or pests emerge that aren’t easily controlled. Or perhaps until a war blocks the flow of crops that are also used for food.
Acres used for fuel don’t do double duty for food. Considering how close the planet is to a food crisis and or a fuel crisis, the logic behind biofuels should be continually tested to ensure soundness.
Canada is one of the best places in the world, both environmentally and from a public responsibility perspective, to produce fuels, both fossil and cropped. Restricting either one at this point in Earth’s history might seem like a good idea to some, but it does push the other to less suitable areas and into unsustainable production.
Demand won’t magically fall for energy or food just because a few governments deem it to be in our long-term interest. Cutting fuel supplies will drive up costs for those in the world who can least afford it and relegate production to those least concerned with the soundness of its creation.
Investments in cleaner fossil fuel production and use, energy efficient construction and affordable public, mass transit are all better targets to lower our greenhouse gas bills.
Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Mike Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.