South Park parodied hybrid car owners creating clouds of ‘smug’, but do they really have anything to be smug about? In the battle against man-made global warming and reducing pollution ethanol powered cars, not hybrids, are touted the way to go and politicians and the environmentally conscious alike are jumping on the bandwagon.
There is no doubt that ethanol burns far more cleanly than diesel or petrol — we could radically reduce the pollutants in our atmosphere by switching. Or can we? You see, to create ethanol, crops need to be grown. Because ethanol is not as potent as petrol, more ethanol is burned per kilometre. It takes between 75-90% of the energy yielded from ethanol to actually grow it — ploughing, harvesting, processing and shipping all add up — and ethanol still releases a lot of carbon dioxide. Then there’s the environmental destruction caused by the conversion of land to biofuel production. This either takes forests or fallow land, or removes land from the general agriculture pool which pushes up food prices. Both of these reduce biodiversity. Add to that the increased erosion, fertiliser pollution and waterway silting and the argument for ethanol is fizzling rapidly.
Even if we manage to eek out a saving using hybrids as opposed to ethanol, at best these cars get only marginally better fuel economy than, for example, a diesel VW Polo, and they take as much if not more toxic metals and fossil fuels to produce. The most we can hope for is a fraction of a percent reduction.
There is one radical change we can make, though. Cows, sheep, pigs and chickens account for a whopping 9% of GHG emissions, but 18% of the GHG effect (methane from farts is over 20 times more damaging than carbon dioxide in terms of its global warming potential). So, would a better solution to reduce greenhouse gases be to change to a diet of lentils and beans? Our own emissions might then match those of the livestock! It’s a no-win situation, then, so where’s my chicken sandwich.