It doesn\’t get madder than this. Swaziland is in the grip of a famine and receiving emergency food aid. Forty per cent of its people are facing acute food shortages. So what has the government decided to export? Biofuel made from one of its staple crops, cassava. The government has allocated several thousand hectares of farmland to ethanol production in the district of Lavumisa, which happens to be the place worst hit by drought. It would surely be quicker and more humane to refine the Swazi people and put them in our tanks. Doubtless a team of development consultants is already doing the sums.
This is indeed insane. But what causes this insanity? Well, have you noted that little phrase, "government decided"? Yes, that\’s it. It\’s government, the planners, who have made this howling error. There\’s our own system of governance, the EU, insisting upon 10% biofuels, then there\’s the Swazi one, making their own error given those incentives.
You see, something we keep trying to tell you: politicians and bureaucrats do not make decisions which benefit us all, they make ones which benefit polticians and bureaucrats: which is why we would like them to have as little decision making power as is possible, consistent with still having a State capable of doing the things that it must.
Ziegler took up the call first made by this column for a five-year moratorium on all government targets and incentives for biofuel: the trade should be frozen until second-generation fuels – made from wood or straw or waste – become commercially available.
And there you go, falling immediately into the same trap. It\’s no good going around pointing out the errors of planners: you need to point out the error of such planning.
A recent study by the Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen shows that the official estimates have ignored the contribution of nitrogen fertilisers. They generate a greenhouse gas – nitrous oxide – that is 296 times as powerful as CO2. These emissions alone ensure that ethanol from maize causes between 0.9 and 1.5 times as much warming as petrol, while rapeseed oil (the source of more than 80% of the world\’s biodiesel) generates 1-1.7 times the impact of diesel. This is before you account for the changes in land use.
I haven\’t seen the study but I\’m willing to believe it. David (?) Pimental has been making the same point about maize derived ethanol for nearly a decade. But that hasn\’t stopped the idiot planners from pushing it forward.
If the governments promoting biofuels do not reverse their policies, the humanitarian impact will be greater than that of the Iraq war. Millions will be displaced, hundreds of millions more could go hungry. This crime against humanity is a complex one, but that neither lessens nor excuses it. If people starve because of biofuels, Ruth Kelly and her peers will have killed them. Like all such crimes, it is perpetrated by cowards, attacking the weak to avoid confronting the strong.
A little strong perhaps, but sound in essence. Yes, indeed, we must stop this push towards biofuels, for it is indeed economic nonsense.
But do remember this little episode next time George has a suggestion for dealing with any particular problem, won\’t you? The planners are not always right.