Hybrids, Biofuels and Other False Idols

Don Fitz from CounterPunch explores the conflict between 'deep green' and 'shallow green' environmentalism.

Published: 15-Feb-2007

Everyone from the Republicans to Democrats to major environmental groups are singing hosannas to biofuels and hybrid cars as the salvation from peak oil and global warming. Will trusting corporations to manufacture environmentally friendly cars make a dent in the world's ecological crises? Or could the "solutions" actually be making the problem worse?

The planned obsolescence and massive production of consumer objects in the overdeveloped countries is responsible for catastrophic climate change and species extinction. The question which we obviously need to address is how to improve the quality of life while decreasing the quantity of useless junk and not throwing anyone out of work. But unflinching loyalty to a growth economy prevents corporate environmentalists from searching for serious transportation options.

Cars are a huge problem, both for global warming and the exhaustion of oil reserves. With less than 5% of the world's population, the US produces 25% of carbon emissions. Transportation causes a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions.

The wastefulness of the automobile is staggering. Roughly 10% of the chemical energy of gasoline makes wheels turn around. Amory Lovins computes that, with a 10% efficient car with a driver, passenger and luggage weighing 300 pounds (which is about 10% of the car weight), only 1% of the fuel's energy actually moves what needs to be moved.

There is an unending stream of stories in the corporate media that biofuels and hybrid cars are the answer. Biofuels promise to reduce oil use and decrease pollution by making fuel from corn and soy instead of petroleum. By generating their own electricity, hybrid cars use less gasoline and therefore emit fewer greenhouse gases.

Techno-fantasies fixate on one portion of transportation: the use of fuel to make a machine go. In reality, transportation is a system for getting around. That system requires energy for manufacture and disposal of machines, land use for moving and storing the things that move, related impacts of moving machines, and an ideology that weaves transportation into a society.

The horror of the car

Let's look at seven dimensions of the destructiveness of gasoline-powered cars.

1. Manufacture. According to Richard Heinberg, "more than half of the energy consumption attributable to each vehicle on the road occurs in the manufacturing process." Thus, unless an alternative approach to transportation significantly reduces manufacturing, it is not even addressing half the problem.

2. Operation. Driving cars results in huge releases of carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas that causes global warming. Myopic views of transportation can't see beyond the driving phase.

3. Disposal. Car batteries have one of the widest arrays of toxic chemicals short of a nuclear dump. Their poisoning of countless generations is virtually ignored by automobile apologists.

4. Land use for roads. Roads break up neighborhoods, farms and animal habitat and contribute directly to global warming. Paved surfaces convert sunlight to heat and do not convert sunlight to photosynthesis as do the plants they eliminate.

5. Land use for storage. What could be uglier and ruin more urban areas than parking lots? Vast expanses of parking lots contribute to "urban warming," which makes cities warmer than the surrounding countryside.

The problem is not just parking lots at shopping centers, work, school, church, hospitals and sporting events - we have our own little parking lots at home. Most likely, driveways for home garages average even higher ratios of access-to-destination paving than do business parking lots. The millions of little driveways to home parking garages comprise an extremely inefficient use of land and probably contribute to urban warming.

6. Other effects. Negative effects from cars which are even less likely to make it into official equations include horrible pollution from burning off ("flaring") unwanted gas from pipelines in Nigeria and elsewhere and over a million animals a year killed on US highways annually. Health effects from toxic automobile emissions could fill many volumes (and probably have).

7. Ideology of idolatry. I remember going to church as a kid and hearing the preacher say that "idolatry" is not limited to worshipping a little carved figure but is any groveling after material possessions. US society has no idol as perverse, as pervasive and as evil as the automobile. The car is the apex and the focus of the ideology that the accumulation of objects is the source of all happiness. This accumulation of objects is killing Life on Earth. Any proposed energy plan that leaves the car unchallenged is a plan to increase the destruction of life and is not a plan to preserve it.

Biofuels, hybrids and motorcycles.

Biofuels such as ethnol from corn and biodiesel from soy are often touted as the world's great salvation from the scarcity of oil and its polluting consequences. Biofuels do neither and introduce problems even worse than oil. Brian Tokar's summary documents that "every domestic biofuel sourceproduces less energy than is consumed in growing and processing the crops." The small reductions in greenhouse gases from burning biofuels are outweighed by their environmental damage of increased deforestation, pesticide usage, nitrate runoff, and water depletion.

Biofuels do nothing to lessen the energy used for manufacturing or disposing of cars or lessen land usage for driving and parking cars. But biofuels require massive land use for growing crops, which means less food for people as there is more food for cars. Widespread use of biofuels would massively increase world hunger and transform wars for oil to wars for land to grow biofuel crops.

Hybrid cars, on the other hand, offer real advantages by combining the use of electricity with gasoline. According to Consumer Reports, "All hybrids save fuel by using an integrated starter motor. It automatically shuts off the gasoline engine when the vehicle comes to a stop, such as at a stop sign or traffic light. The engine automatically starts again when needed." This results in fewer carbon dioxide emissions from the use of less gasoline.

The advantage of hybrids is not as much as their enthusiasts might have us believe. The Consumer Reports rating for overall fuel economy of Toyota's Prius is 44 mpg (not 50 to 60 mpg). This is better than 34 mph for the Volkswagon Jetta TDI, but hardly a night and day difference.

Since hybrids average $3000 more than comparable cars, it is reasonable to ask if they require more energy to manufacture. Maybe not, because the $3000 could include initial costs for research and development. But a much higher cost to manufacture could be hidden by government subsidies to help hybrids gain a share of the market. There is a real possibility that hybrids transfer energy from the driving portion of their use-cycle to the manufacturing phase.

There is no reason to believe that hybrids offer any advantage over conventional cars in terms of energy used for disposal, land used for roads or parking lots or road kill. The amount of fuel needed for driving is a real issue and no one doubts hybrids excel in this area. The hybrid with the best fuel economy is the Honda Insight, which Consumer Reports rates at 51 mpg. To get this fuel savings, the Insight is a two-seater.

This leads to the question: If the greatest fuel saving in a hybrid comes from reducing the number of passengers, why not reduce it again from 2 to 1 and ride a motorcycle? Are there advantages of hybrids that have not been available for decades via motorcycles?

There is good reason for suspecting that motorcycles might have less total negative effect than hybrids. Being smaller, they certainly require less energy for manufacture and disposal than any car. Though they require road space, a "motorcycle lane" would be more enforceable and more narrow than a "carpool lane." Parking 1000 motorcycles would certainly require less space than parking 1000 cars.

Despite their popularity among some environmentalists, both biofuels and hybrids leave the consumerist mentality untouched. They both create an obscenely false sense of security, much like advising someone to put a band-aid on an arterial wound.

If hybrids were promoted as part of a larger plan to reduce automobile production by 95% and require that those few cars that are manufactured be hybrids (or get equivalent gas mileage), we could be far more enthusiastic about them. I don't think that's what Toyota and Honda have in mind. At least Philip-Morris pretends to believe that smoking is bad. The current fad for hybrids has more in common with a campaign to improve health by smoking low tar and nicotine cigarettes than it does with confronting the need to quit the addiction.


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