We've heard plenty of talk lately about the promise of bio-fuels - liquid fuels like ethanol and bio-diesel made from plants - to reduce our dependence on oil. Even President Bush beat the bio-fuel drum in his last State of the Union speech.
Fuel from plants? Sounds pretty good. But before you rush out to buy an E-85 pickup, consider:
Even a greener fuel source like the switchgrass President Bush mentioned, which requires fewer petroleum-based inputs than corn and reduces topsoil losses by growing back each year, could provide only a small fraction of the energy we demand.
Rather than chase phantom substitutes for fossil fuels, we should focus on what can immediately both slow our contribution to global climate change and reduce our dependence on oil and other fossil fuels: cutting energy use.
Let's be bold. Let's raise the tax on gasoline to encourage consumers to buy fuel-efficient cars and trucks. We can use the proceeds to fund research and subsidies for truly sustainable energy.
Let's raise energy efficiency standards for vehicles, appliances, industries, and new buildings.
Let's employ new land-use rules and tax incentives to discourage suburban sprawl and encourage dense, mixed-use development that puts workplaces, retail stores, and homes within walking distance of each other. Let's better fund mass transit.
Let's switch the billions we now spend on ethanol subsidies to development of truly sustainable energy technologies.
And why not spend money to make on-the-shelf technology like hybrid cars more affordable? Fuel-efficient hybrids aren't the final solution, but they can be a bridge to more sustainable solutions.
The focus on bio-fuels as a silver bullet to solve our energy and climate change crises is at best misguided. At worst, it is a scheme that could have potentially disastrous environmental consequences. It will have little effect on our fossil fuel dependence.
We must reduce energy use now if we hope to kick our oil addiction and slow climate change.
Pushing bio-fuels at the expense of energy conservation today will only make our problems more severe, and their solutions more painful, tomorrow.
Julia Olmstead is a graduate student in plant breeding and sustainable agriculture at Iowa State University and a graduate fellow with the Land Institute, Salina, Kan.