Ethanol May Not Ease Global Warming, UN Says
BRASILIA -- It's too soon to say whether ethanol will help slow global warming, the head of the United Nations Environment Program said Monday, ahead of a meeting by the world's two biggest ethanol producers to discuss building a world market in the biofuel.
"We're (seeing) the expansion of ethanol production in many parts of the world, and we're in the early stages of understanding the implications of that development," said UNEP director Achim Steiner after meeting with Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
"Nobody should take any conclusion as given," Steiner said.
Lula is eager to boost global trade in Brazilian sugar-cane ethanol, which is cheaper and eight times more energy efficient than the corn ethanol made in the United States.
Lula will meet Friday with President Bush, who wants to replace a percentage of U.S. gasoline with corn ethanol to help farmers and to reduce dependence on oil, especially since U.S. antagonists like Venezuela and Iran depend on oil revenue.
The United States is the biggest producer and consumer of ethanol but Brazil is the biggest exporter and has been using ethanol to power cars for 30 years.
Environmentalists support the use of ethanol because the heat-trapping carbon gases released when it burns are captured again by new plants. Carbon gases from fossil fuels are almost certainly linked to a rise in global temperatures, climate scientists have said.
But Steiner said building a global ethanol market won't necessarily lower the amount of carbon gas released into the air unless there are proper norms for biofuel production and innovations in making ethanol from tough cellulosic materials like grasses and corn husks.
Researchers are studying termites to learn how they digest wood to make sugar, a process that could help make corn ethanol more environmentally friendly.
Currently, fertilizing and processing corn into ethanol uses almost as much fossil fuel as it saves. Brazilian cane ethanol is far more efficient, but it might lose that edge due to the expense and energy spent in being shipped overseas in fuel-guzzling tankers.
Lula has said he will ask Bush to consider lifting a U.S. tariff on Brazilian ethanol and do more to fight global warming and foster fair trade. The White House said the tariff is not up for discussion.
Bush has been widely criticized for refusing in 2001 to sign the global Kyoto protocol to lower carbon emissions. The United States emits more carbon gas than any other nation.