Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

10 January 2008

A New Environmental Vision

During this lull in the presidential horse race, it might be both re-energizing and useful to think briefly about something else. How about a new idea that might solve four of humanity’s most pressing global problems?

Four factors now threaten the generally positive trend of humanity’s economic and social progress. First, we are running out of the fossil fuels that powered the industrial and electronic ages and make modern life possible. Second, burning all the fossil fuels that still lie in the ground (including coal) would cook our planet beyond repair. Third, nature’s distribution of fossil fuels concentrates—and will continue to concentrate—enormous wealth and power in some of the most politically extreme and socially backward societies on earth. Without much exaggeration, you can say that oil fuels terrorism. Finally, the Northern Hemisphere is better developed and generally more egalitarian than the Southern Hermisphere, and the latter needs to catch up.

Suppose you could address, if not solve, all four of these major problems, in a substantial way, with a single new idea. Would you consider it?

If you would, you should read Roger Cohen’s column in the New York Times today. It contains the seeds of the first really new and powerful idea on the environment and natural resources that I have read in some time. Cohen focuses on Brazil, which he is now visiting, but the idea is far bigger than even he seems to realize.

The idea is simplicity itself. The Southern Hemisphere has a lot of sun, a lot of unused land, and a lot of poor people. Why not pay people there to produce ethanol for use as a fuel by the rest of the world? They could make ethanol from sugar cane, which has eight times the energy yield per acre of land as the corn that we use for that purpose.

Here are the potential benefits of this powerful idea:

1. Ethanol from sugar cane (or corn) is a renewable resource. As long as we have land, sun and water, we can make more. The fossil fuels that still lie in the ground could stay there, to be used at a much lower rate as feedstocks for plastics, chemicals, and medicines, which don’t release carbon unless we burn them.

2. Ethanol from sugar cane (or corn) is carbon neutral. The carbon put into the atmosphere by burning this year’s fuel is absorbed by next year’s crop. If all our fuel came for sugar cane (or corn), we could stop further global warming now.

3. The vast flow of wealth from the developed world into the most dictatorial and backward societies on Earth would slow. Funds might even begin to flow to real schools, instead of madrassas that teach little but the Koran and hate. The Middle East would have to compete with the rest of the world on its skill and innovation, not on a fluke of prehistoric nature.

4. Diversion of these vast sums from the Princes of Saudi Arabia and the theoocracy of Iran, among other delightful regimes, would benefit the poorest and most needy people on Earth, in Africa and Latin America.

5. The air in the world’s cities would get a lot cleaner. Ethanol is a small, simple molecule—much simpler than the complex organic mess that is crude. Burning ethanol doesn’t produce the complex hydrocarbons that refining and burning oil does, let alone burning coal. City people the world over could breathe easier.

6. The risk of environmental disasters at sea would be greatly reduced. Unlike crude, ethanol dissolves in water. (Ever had a martini?) An ethanol spill at sea, even from a supertanker, would produce little or none of the environmental calamity that we now see with depressing regularity from oil spills.

7. Using sugar-derived ethanol would not raise the price of corn, thereby making food more expensive, particularly animal-derived food. The world seems to have enough sugar now, and the additional acreage devoted to sugar would not reduce its supply for food. As for us Americans, our obesity epidemic suggests that we already have too much sugar in our food.

There is only one problem with this grand vision: ethanol tariffs. Our sugar industry and our own farmers have prevailed upon Congress to impose tariffs on ethanol from Brazil (or anywhere else). So there is no incentive to import it or to build up industry in the Southern Hemisphere to make more.

A second possible problem is that, as human population increases and the developing world develops, we may run out of land to produce enough ethanol to meet the world’s needs. But so what? Even if ethanol is only a partial solution to this many pressing global problems, is there any downside to trying it?

Eventually we will learn how to convert the sun’s energy more directly to our benefit, without the need to grow crops to do it. In the meantime, sugar-cane-derived ethanol is an elegant, safe, socially progressive and eminently feasible solution, in whole or in part, to four major global problems.

This near-panacea requires no new technology or expensive and dilatory research. All it requires is political will and industrial organization. (It also may require greater political reform in the Southern Hemisphere, to direct the new influx of fuel money from the developed world down to the South’s poor. That’s an issue on which Cohen has some interesting things to say.)

Maybe this grand vision is not so far from our presidential horse race after all. Shouldn’t we be asking our candidates what they think about it?

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