Part 7 of 10: Global Warming Myths Debunked!
Part 7 in a 10 part series of debunking some so called myths about global warming. Specifically the argument that CO2 is not a pollutant.
January 4, 2007 – 1
Copyright © 2007 Earth Policy Institute
Fuel versus Food
DISTILLERY DEMAND FOR GRAIN TO FUEL CARS VASTLY UNDERSTATED
World May Be Facing Highest Grain Prices in History
Lester R. Brown
Investment in fuel ethanol distilleries has soared since the late-2005 oil price hikes, but data collection in this fast-changing sector has fallen behind. Because of inadequate data collection on the number of new plants under construction, the quantity of grain that will be needed for fuel ethanol distilleries has been vastly understated. Farmers, feeders, food processors, ethanol investors, and grain-importing countries are basing decisions on incomplete data.
This unprecedented diversion of the world’s leading grain crop to the production of fuel will affect food prices everywhere. As the world corn price rises, so too do those of wheat and rice, both because of consumer substitution among grains and because the crops compete for land. Both corn and wheat futures were already trading at 10-year highs in late 2006.
“We are creating a bubble economy—an economy whose output is artificially inflated by drawing down the earth’s natural capital,” says Lester R. Brown in his new book, Plan B: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble.
“Each year the bubble grows larger as our demands on the earth expand. The challenge for our generation is to deflate the global economic bubble before it bursts,” says Brown, President and Founder of the Earth Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based independent environmental research organization.
“We are releasing carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere faster than the earth can absorb it, creating a greenhouse effect. Rising atmospheric CO2 levels promise a temperature rise during this century that could match that between the last Ice Age and the present,” notes Brown in Plan B, which was funded by the U.N. Population Fund.
Bubble economies are not new. American investors got an up-close view of one when the bubble in high-tech stocks burst in 2000 and the NASDAQ, an indicator of the value of these stocks, declined by some 75 percent. The Japanese had a similar experience in 1989 when the real estate bubble burst, depreciating stock and real estate assets by 60 percent. As a result of the bad-debt fallout and other effects of this collapse, the once dynamic Japanese economy has been dead in the water ever since.
The bursting of these two bubbles most directly affected people living in the industrial West and Japan. But if the bubble that is based on the overconsumption of the earth’s natural capital bursts, it will affect the entire world.
Water shortages, such as those in China, are becoming global, crossing national boundaries via the international grain trade. Countries facing water shortages often import water in the form of grain. Since it takes 1,000 tons of water to produce 1 ton of grain, this is the most efficient way to import water. Grain has become the currency with which countries balance their water books. Trading in grain futures is now in a sense trading in water futures.
“Plan A—business as usual—is not working. It is creating a bubble economy. Plan B describes how to deflate the economic bubble before it bursts,” says Brown. “This involves, for example, reducing the demand for water to the sustainable yield of aquifers by quickly raising water productivity and accelerating the shift to smaller families. With most of the nearly 3 billion people to be added by 2050 to be born in countries already facing water shortages, pressure on water supplies will mount. If population is not stabilized soon, the water situation in some countries could become unmanageable.”
Accelerating the shift to small families and population stability means providing women with reproductive health care, filling the family planning gap, and investing heavily in education to ensure that the U.N. goal of universal primary education by 2015 is reached. The more education women have, the more options they have and the fewer children they bear. We now have the wealth and knowledge to eradicate the poverty that fuels rapid population growth.
A simple measure, such as replacing old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs with highly efficient compact fluorescent bulbs would enable the world to close hundreds of coal-fired power plants. Replacing nonrefillable beverage containers, such as aluminum cans, with refillable bottles can cut energy use by up to 90 percent. If all U.S. motorists shifted from their current vehicles with internal combustion engines to cars with hybrid engines, like the Toyota Prius or the Honda Insight, gasoline use could be cut in half. Cutting carbon emissions in half is less a matter of technology and more a matter of political leadership.
“Not only do we need to stabilize population, raise water productivity, and stabilize climate, but we need to do it at wartime speed. The key to quickly shifting from a carbon-based energy economy to a hydrogen-based one is to incorporate the costs of climate change, including crop-damaging temperatures, more destructive storms, and rising sea level, in the prices of fossil fuels. We need to get the market to tell the ecological truth.”
At average world grain consumption of just over 300 kilograms or one third of a ton per person per year, this would feed 480 million people. Stated otherwise, 480 million of the world’s 6 billion people are being fed with grain produced with the unsustainable use of water.
Overpumping is a new phenomenon, one largely confined to the last half century. Only since the development of powerful diesel and electrically driven pumps have we had the capacity to pull water out of aquifers faster than it is replaced by precipitation.
In addition to population growth, urbanization and industrialization also expand the demand for water. As developing country villagers, traditionally reliant on the village well, move to urban high-rise apartment buildings with indoor plumbing, their residential water use can easily triple. Industrialization takes even more water than urbanization.
As people move up the food chain, consuming more beef, pork, poultry, eggs, and dairy products, they use more grain.
Once a localized phenomenon, water scarcity is now crossing national borders via the international grain trade.
It is now often said that future wars in the region will more likely be fought over water than oil. Perhaps, but given the difficulty in winning a water war, the competition for water seems more likely to take place in world grain markets. The countries that will “win”in this competition will be those that are financially strongest, not those that are militarily strongest.