Learning from the conundrum of biofuels: Don’t trade one problem for another

Learning from the conundrum of biofuels: Don’t trade one problem for another

There’s been a lot of news lately about biofuels, a topic I admittedly don’t know much about, so I recently dove in with both feet and did some swimming around.

There’s a lot of momentum around algae – with ExxonMobil announcing a $600 million investment and an algae-fueled car that just crossed the country getting 147 mpg along the way.

There’s also momentum around wood, or as the scientists call it, woody biomass. Just a few days ago Xcel Energy won approval to convert a coal-fired boiled in Wisconsin to burn waste wood leftover from logging operations. Once completed, it will be the largest biomass plant in the Midwest.

According to a recent article in the New York Times, woody biomass now provides less than 1% of the country’s energy, enough to power about 3.5 million homes. A recent study reported that available raw materials could allow output from burning wood to double, and new incinerators are planned in many states.

But here’s the thing about burning wood: it emits 1.5 times more carbon emissions than burning coal, according to government and utility company research. Sure, we can grow more trees, so in theory, wood is renewable. But turning to wood as an alternate energy source will not help reduce the threat of climate change – it will only compound the problem by spewing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

And, emissions from burning wood aren’t covered under the cap proposals in the pending climate bill so there are no controls in place to regulate them.

Over the years, ethanol has gained some traction, but old issues still dog it – growing corn for energy instead of food drives up food prices, and it doesn’t deliver the same energy bang for the buck. And that’s not even beginning to address the political whirlwind around farm subsidies.

So let’s take a look at all of this as an analogy for marketing sustainability: as a marketer are you essentially burning wood? Are you trading one problem for another equally intractable one? Sure, you can reduce the amount of plastic in your packaging but if it still isn’t easily recyclable, the problem’s not solved. You can put a “green certification” on your web site, but if it doesn’t stand for anything real, the problem’s not solved. Half steps aren’t good enough. Consumers will see them for what they are. Instead, commit to finding more complete solutions that address the entire problem. Yes, change can be incremental, but make sure that you’re moving forward instead of making the problem worse.

About the Author

Karen Barnes

Karen is a former contributor to Shelton Insights.

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