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Fuel for Thought

Making it personal

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Fuel for Thought

When contemplating alternative fuel sources, the benefits don't always outweigh the risks. Ethanol is a case in point.

Global warming is my fault. Before you come after me with sharp, green fangs and cracked environmental knuckles, you might want to say the same thing to yourself.

Sure, I don’t rip down the highway in a muscle car, spraying aerosol cans at the ozone layer. But I do drive a vehicle that produces carbon dioxide. Like many Canadians, I am willing to change my light bulbs and recycle more but unwilling to change my way of life.

Meanwhile, today’s atmosphere contains 32 percent more carbon dioxide than it did at the start of the Industrial Revolution; the globe’s average temperature has increased by 0.6 Celsius since 1900, notes the David Suzuki Foundation. If the worst predictions are true, we could be only a few years away from rising sea levels, mega-droughts, famine, and international conflicts caused by global warming.

Many experts now argue that the answer lies in the marketplace. Make alternative fuels available and offer a cap-and-trade system that puts a maximum on the amount of carbon emissions that industries can release; those that exceed the maximum are required to pay for their excess output. The problem with this is businesses that manage to burn less will simply sell their leftover emissions as carbon credits.

A carbon tax is much simpler: the more you pollute, the more you pay. However, companies will raise prices to cover the cost of the tax if they refuse to lower emissions, and consumers will foot the bill of inflation the same way we did with gas prices.

A Strong Option

Guy Dauncey, president of the BC Sustainable Energy Association, offers a few promising alternatives. He argues that technology for plug-in hybrid vehicles does exist. “Eight-five percent of your miles could be done on the electric battery,” he said. “It’s really a breakthrough technology.”

Dauncey also encourages the provinces to adopt road congestion prices where drivers pay to enter congested areas, and the income collected is used to support environmentally friendly public transit.

Go the Extra Mile

If we really want to stop global warming, we have to do more than recycle and buy energy-efficient light bulbs. Each one of us has to step up and vacuum our previous way of life out of our left ear. This means to seriously lower our reliance on combustion engines and switch to alternative fuels such as biodiesel, or buy a hybrid-electric vehicle.

“We have to understand it is possible we could see a five-metre sea level rise within the century,” Dauncey warns. “It’s really important to do what we can personally. It’s equally important to talk to your city councillors and your business leaders to start making changes.
“Everyone will be asked to contribute to this.”

Pro-Choice: Biodiesel

Biodiesel is a clean-burning fuel made from natural, renewable resources such as waste vegetable oil, and is a readily available alternative to diesel fuel. According to the Canola Council of Canada, biodiesel can reduce poisonous carbon monoxide emissions by
50 percent, ozone-forming unburned hydrocarbons by 93 percent, smog-producing particles by 30 percent, and acid-rain-forming sulphates by 100 percent. The US Department of Energy found biodiesel production and use produced 78 percent fewer carbon dioxide emissions than petroleum diesel. Biodiesel is biodegradable and renewable, and can be easily used to fuel most diesel trucks and farming equipment, with few or no alterations.

The anti-alternative: ethanol Unfortunately, many vehicles today still run on gas–and the ethanol alternative to gasoline does not seem as promising.

In Canada ethanol is currently distilled primarily from grains such as corn and wheat. As of mid-2002, five plants producing fuel ethanol were operating in Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, with two in Ontario, producing a total of about 175 million litres per year.

According to Natural Resources Canada (NRC), all cars built since the 1970s are fully compatible with up to 10 percent ethanol (E-10) in the fuel mixture. While the NRC argues that ethanol could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by anywhere from 3 to 8 percent, this government agency fails to take into consideration the environmental damage that fuel cropping causes. This includes a decline in soil fertility due to reduced organic matter, a decrease in water availability and quality, an increase in pesticide and fertilizer use, and the potential for deforestation and increased greenhouse gas emissions caused by farming equipment.

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