There are risks to global warming policy as well as risks to
global warming, and although the former could be costlier than the
latter, they are often neglected in climate change debate. While it
may seem far-fetched to some that responding to the "climate
crisis" could do more harm than good, it is in fact already
happening. Consider the biofuels mandate, which is contributing to
the very global warming problems it was designed to prevent.
Global Warming and hunger
Among the litany of scary predictions associated with global
warming is the adverse impact on future food supplies. For example,
the 2007 U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report
states that by 2020, "agricultural production, including access to
food, in many African countries is projected to be severely
compromised." A frequently cited global warming study
conducted for the Pentagon went one step further, outlining
potential hunger-related political unrest and national security
concerns and stating that "aggressive wars are likely to be fought
over food, water, and energy." Environmental activists warn
of crop failures adding to the waves of "climate refugees" fleeing
areas that can no longer sustain them.
As with all global warming-related gloom-and-doom predictions,
there are reasons for doubt. For example, the temperature increases
during the 1980s and 1990s, on which current global warming
concerns are largely based, were accompanied by increases in food
Thus, the predicted link between warming and reduced food
supplies is not based on past experience. And, even assuming that
the planet warms as much as these scenarios predict, it may result
in the agricultural sector finding methods to adapt to changing
conditions in order that yields are not significantly reduced.
Further, the link between global warming and increased drought, the
main cause of the hypothesized decline in food supplies, is
challenged by several researchers.
Nevertheless, as global warming activists continue to predict
alarming food shortages occurring at some point in the future, many
look around and see a tightening food supply today. Only it was not
caused by global warming: It was caused in part by global warming
policy, specifically the move toward using food as fuel.
biofuels Mandates and hunger
America's first mandatory policy to reduce global warming
emissions is its biofuels mandate. Along with the national security
and other perceived benefits, these agriculturally-based
alternative fuels were purported to have lower global warming
emissions than the petroleum-derived gasoline or diesel fuel they
displace. At the beginning of the decade, Al Gore said that "by
tripling U.S. use of bioenergy and bioproducts by 2010, we can keep
millions of tons of greenhouse gases out of the air...."
Thanks to the 2007 energy bill signed into law by President Bush
last December, it is occurring even faster than Gore imagined. The
U.S. is now required to mix 9 billion gallons of such fuels into
the gasoline supply in 2008, up from less than 3 billion gallons in
2000. The mandate is mostly met by corn-based ethanol. Europe has
also set similar targets for biofuels, mostly bio-diesel made from
palm oil, rapeseed, or soybeans.
Not surprisingly, diverting crops from food to fuel use has
raised food prices. At a little over $2 per bushel when the mandate
was first effective, the price of corn has recently surged well
above $5, due in large part to nearly a quarter of the crop's now
being needed for fuel use. A host of corn-related foods, such as
corn-fed meat and dairy, have seen sharp price increases. Wheat and
soybeans are also up, partly as a result of fewer acres now being
planted in favor of corn. European biodiesel mandates have had a
A Purdue University study places the annual food cost increases
for 2007 at $22 billion and estimates that "$15 billion of this
increase is related to the recent surge in demand to use crops as
fuel." That $15 billion calculates to an
additional $130 per household in 2007, and food prices are
considerably higher thus far in 2008.
Other factors -- high energy costs, below-average yields in some
regions, growing world population, a weak dollar -- have also
impinged on food supplies and prices. However, most experts see the
biofuels mandates as a substantial contributor, and one that
exacerbates any other pressures on food costs.
With 800 million people at risk for hunger and malnutrition, the
consequences are far more severe in developing nations than they
are in developed nations. "When millions of people are going
hungry, it's a crime against humanity that food should be diverted
to biofuels," said Palaniappan Chidambaram, India's finance
minister. World Bank President Robert Zoellick has
acknowledged that "biofuels is no doubt a significant contributor"
to high food costs, adding that "it is clearly the case that
programs in Europe and the United States that have increased
biofuel production have contributed to the added demand for
Even some of the political unrest described in the Pentagon
study is starting to emerge. Rising prices have led to food-related
rioting in several developing nations. While it is not possible to
demonstrate conclusively that, this rioting would not have occurred
if not for the biofuels mandates, it is far from speculative to
assume that the increased pressures of the mandates on food prices
were contributors. In any event, the rioters are clearly not
responding to global warming, as there has been no additional
warming in 2007 and thus far in 2008.
Moreover, all of this is occurring from biofuels usage that is
only a fraction of what will be required in the years ahead.
America is only one-quarter of the way toward the 36 billion gallon
requirement by 2022 included in last December's big energy bill.
The European Union also has plans to increase its biodiesel use,
though it is now reconsidering this policy.
To add insult to injury, the global warming benefits of biofuels
have been called into question. Two recent studies published in the
journal Science conclude that, rather than reducing carbon
dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, biofuels actually
increase them. One study finds that clearing lands for
energy crops creates a so-called carbon debt by "releasing 17 to
420 times more carbon dioxide than the annual greenhouse gas (GHG)
reductions that these biofuels would provide by displacing fossil
fuels," while the other projects "GHG emissions
from corn ethanol nearly double those from gasoline for each km
Last year, a study conducted for the Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development, presciently entitled "biofuels: Is The
Cure Worse Than the Disease?" stated that "the rush to energy crops
threatens to cause food shortages and damage to biodiversity with
limited benefits." The authors were right. Oxfam, an
international aid organization that has been very vocal about the
threat of global warming, now concedes that "large-scale growth in
biofuels demand has pushed up food prices and so far there is
little evidence that it is reducing overall carbon emissions."
The very food-related problems that we see today are much like
the hypothesized future ones that were supposed to be caused by
global warming. That global warming policy is more likely a
contributor than global warming itself is a strong enough reason to
rethink this policy.
For this reason, Congress should repeal its current biofuels
mandate. In addition, as the Senate soon takes up debate on S.
2191, the major global warming bill, it should heed the biofuels
lesson and avoid any measures that may also prove to be more
trouble than they are worth.
Ben Lieberman is Senior
Policy Analyst for Energy and the Environment in the Thomas A. Roe
Institute for Economic Policy Studies at The Heritage