So long, Sugar

7 Oct

A week or two ago I attended an Economist-hosted debate about the kinds of  energy cars will be running on in the future.  I drafted a post, made some weak joke about the lifespan of the back-seat snog – cars, especially electric ones, are expected to become smaller in order to meet emissions targets – and then abandoned it.  Who really wants to read heavy material about hydrogen, biofuels and batteries in their leisure time anyway? And besides, I wasn’t sure if it was in the remit of this blog, which is supposed to be beautiful and uplifting.

This morning I changed my mind after reading a piece in the Guardian on the soaring price of sugar.  You’ll know that, along with palm oil, sugar is a key biofuel, an energy source that at the debate Graham Sweeney, executive-vice president for Future Fuels and CO2 at Shell, maintained could be a major oil-replacement for cars. Countering him somewhat vociferously was  Doug Parr, chief scientist and policy director for Greenpeace, who expressed concern about the increased risk of further deforestation in accommodating new palm oil plantations.

All well and good but no-one seemed to mention the weather and the effects of climate change, although I’m sure it was on the minds of many people there.  Having grown up in a farming community, I know that it’s a brave person who tries to make a living off the land by gambling with the weather.  An extra couple of months of rain or drought can ruin several years’ work and can cost a fortune.  And that’s one farmer feeding his cows by drawing upon generations of received wisdom in a climate we understand.  How about this, from that piece I read:

There are some solid underlying reasons for the upward lurch in the price of raw sugar. Heavy rain has disrupted milling in the world’s largest producer of sugar, Brazil, where a sizeable portion of sugarcane has been diverted from food use into ethanol fuel. Meanwhile the biggest consumer of sugar, India, has had a dismal monsoon season and has gone from being a net exporter of sugar to an importer.

“The key premise has really come from Brazil and India,” said Sudakshina Unnikrishnan, a commodities analyst at Barclays Capital. “The bulk of the problem lies in inclement weather conditions.”

I’m not an energy expert and perhaps I’ve missed something, but it’s alarming and somewhat unbelievable that an energy company with tremendous muscle is prepared to attach crucial energy production to something as inconstant as farming  in a changing climate.

This is quite apart from the issue of food availability: if we can’t distribute it evenly now, what chance have we  in the future  if energy and food are competing for the same limited arable land?

You can read the full Guardian article here.

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