Whether carbon dioxide emissions are the cause of climate change is still debated, but gasoline-fueled vehicles do pose environmental hazards. There is an alternative to gasoline that does not require sending all our combustion engine vehicles to the junkyard. This is alcohol fuel (bioethanol). Not only are greenhouse gas emissions from ethanol substantially lower than from gasoline, but as detailed in a biofuel “explainer” on the website of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology:
As we search for fuels that won’t contribute to the greenhouse effect and climate change, biofuels are a promising option because the carbon dioxide (CO2) they emit is recycled through the atmosphere. When the plants used to make biofuels grow, they absorb CO2 from the air, and it’s that same CO2 that goes back into the atmosphere when the fuels are burned. In theory, biofuels can be a “carbon neutral” or even “carbon negative” way to power cars, trucks and planes, meaning they take at least as much CO2 out of the atmosphere as they put back in.
A major promise of biofuels is that they can lower overall CO2 emissions without changing a lot of our infrastructure. They can work with existing vehicles, and they can be mass-produced from biomass in the same way as other biotechnology products, like chemicals and pharmaceuticals, which are already made on a large scale.… Most gasoline sold in the U.S. is mixed with 10% ethanol.
Biofuels can be created from any sort of organic commercial waste that is high in carbohydrates, which can be fermented into alcohol locally. Unlike the waste fryer oil and grease used to generate biodiesel, carbohydrates are supplied by plants in abundance. Methanol, the simplest form of alcohol, can be made from any biomass – anything that is or once was a plant (wood chips, agricultural waste of all kinds, animal waste, etc.). In the US, 160 million tons of trash ends up in landfills annually. Estimates are that this landfill waste could be converted to 15-16 million gallons of methanol.
In the third in a series of national assessments calculating the potential supply of biomass in the United States, the US Energy Department concluded in 2016 that the country has the future potential to produce at least one billion dry tons of biomass resources annually without adversely affecting the environment. This amount of biomass could be used to produce enough biofuel, biopower, and will bioproducts to displace approximately 30% of 2005 U.S. petroleum consumption, said the report, without negatively affecting the production of food or other agricultural products.
A documentary film called Pump tells the tale of the monopolization of the auto fuel industry by the petroleum cartel, and how that monopoly can be ended with a choice of biofuels at the pump.
Henry Ford’s first car, built in 1896, ran 100% on alcohol fuel, produced by farmers using using beets, apples, corn and other starchy crops in their own stills. He envisioned the family piling into the car and driving through the countryside, fueling up along the road at independent farms. But alcohol was burdened with a liquor tax, and John D. Rockefeller saw a use for the gasoline fuel that was being discarded as a toxic waste product of the kerosene market he had cornered. In 1908, Ford accommodated Rockefeller’s gasoline fuel by building America’s first “flex-fuel” car, the Model T or “Tin Lizzie.” It could be made to run on either gasoline or ethanol by adjusting the ignition timing and air fuel mixture. Rockefeller then blocked competition from Ford’s ethanol fuel by using his power and influence to help pass Prohibition, a Constitutional amendment banning the sale and transport of alcohol.
The petroleum monopoly was first broken in Brazil, where most cars are adapted to run on bioethanol made from sugar cane. Existing combustion engines can be converted to use this “flex fuel” with simple, inexpensive kits. The Brazilian biofuel market dates back to the oil crisis of the 1970s, when gas had to be imported and was quite expensive. With the conversion to biofuels, Pres. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva achieved national energy independence, giving a major boost to the struggling Brazilian economy.
The U.S. push for biofuels was begun in California in the 1980s, when Ford Motor Company was enlisted to design a flex fuel car to help reduce the state’s smog problem. But again the oil industry lobbied against it. They argued that bioethanol, which in the U.S. is chiefly made from corn, was competing for corn as a foodstuff at a time when food shortages were a major concern.
David Blume counters that it is not a question of “food or fuel” but “food and fuel.” Most U.S. corn is grown as livestock feed, and the “distillers grains” left after the alcohol is removed are more easily digested by cows than unprocessed grain. Distillers grains have another advantage over hay as a livestock feed: its easier digestion reduces the noxious cow emissions said to be a significant source of greenhouse gases.
Fuel from a Weed: The Wide-ranging Virtues of Hemp
Opponents, however, continue to raise the “food versus fuel” objection, and they claim that biofuels from corn are not “carbon neutral” when the steps used to create them are factored in. Even the fertilizers needed to grow them may emit CO2 and other greenhouse gases. But corn is not the only biofuel option. There are plants that can grow like weeds on poor soil without fertilizers.
Industrial hemp – the non-intoxicating form of cannabis grown for fiber, cloth, oil, and many other purposes – is a prime candidate not just for fuel but to help save the environment. Hemp has been proven to absorb more CO2 per hectare than any forest or commercial crop, making it the ideal carbon sink. It can be grown on a wide scale on nutrient poor soils; it grows remarkably fast with almost no fertilizer or irrigation; and it returns around 70% of the nutrients used in the growth cycle back to the soil. Biofuels usually require substantially more water than fossil fuels, but hemp needs roughly half the amount needed for corn. Hemp can also be used for “bioremediation” – the restoration of soil from toxic pollution. It helps remove toxins and has been used by farmers to “cure” their fields, even from radioactive agents, metals, pesticides, crude oil, and toxins in landfills.
An analysis published in the journal Science in 2019 concluded that a worldwide tree planting program could remove two-thirds of all the CO2 emissions that have been pumped into the atmosphere by human activities. As reported in The Guardian in 2019, one trillion trees could be restored for as little as $300 billion – “by far the cheapest solution that has ever been proposed.” The chief drawback to that solution is that trees grow slowly, requiring 50 to 100 years to reach their full carbon sequestering potential. Hemp, on the other hand, is one of the fastest CO2-to-biomass conversion tools available, growing to 13 feet in 100 days. It also requires much less space per plant than trees, and it can be grown on nearly any type of soil without fertilizers.
In a 2015 book titled “Cannabis Vs. Climate Change,” Paul von Hartmann notes that hemp is also one of the richest available sources of aromatic terpenes, which are known to slow climate change. When emitted by pine forests, terpenes help to cool the planet by bouncing energy from the sun back into space. In a mature hemp field, the temperature on a hot day can be 20 degrees cooler than in surrounding areas.
Reviving an American Staple
Hemp has many uses besides fuel. Long an American staple, its cultivation was mandated in colonial America. It has been used for centuries in pharmaceuticals, clothing and textiles; it is an excellent construction material; its fiber can be used to make paper, saving the forests; and hemp seeds are , providing protein equivalent by weight to beef or lamb.
The value of industrial hemp has long been known by the U.S. government, which produced an informational film in 1942 called “Hemp for Victory” to encourage farmers to grow it for the war effort. Besides its many industrial uses, including for cloth and cordage, the film detailed the history of the plant’s use and best growing practices.
Henry Ford used hemp as a construction material for his Model T, and Porsche is now using hemp-based material in the body of its 718 Cayman GT4 Clubsport track car to reduce its weight while maintaining rigidity and safety. “Hempcrete” (concrete made from hemp mixed with lime) is a “green” building material used for construction and insulation, including for building “tiny homes.”
Hemp can replace so many environmentally damaging industries that an April 2019 article in Forbes claimed that “Industrial Hemp Is the Answer to Petrochemical Dependency.” The authors wrote:
[O]ur dependency on petrochemicals has proven hard to overcome, largely because these materials are as versatile as they are volatile. From fuel to plastics to textiles to paper to packaging to construction materials to cleaning supplies, petroleum-based products are critical to our industrial infrastructure and way of life.
… Interestingly, however, there is a naturally-occurring and increasingly-popular material that can be used to manufacture many of the same products we now make from petroleum-derived materials …. That material is hemp.
… The crop can be used to make everything from biodegradable plastic to construction materials like flooring, siding, drywall and insulation to paper to clothing to soap to biofuels made from hemp seeds and stalks.
The authors note that while hemp was widely grown until a century ago, the knowledge, facilities and equipment required to produce it efficiently are no longer commonly available, since hemp farming was banned for decades due to its association with the psychoactive version of the plant.
Fueling a Rural Renaissance
In an effort to fill that vacuum, a recent initiative in California is exploring different hemp varieties and growing techniques, in the first extensive growing trials for hemp fiber and grain in the state since the 1990s. The project is a joint effort among the World Cannabis Foundation, hemp wholesaler Hemp Traders, and Oklahoma-based processor Western Fiber. The Pennsylvania-based Rodale Institute, a nonprofit that supports research into organic farming, has also partnered on a USDA-supported research project on the use of hemp in the development of biochar (charcoal produced by firing biomass in the absence of oxygen). On July 31, the World Cannabis Foundation will host a field day and factory tour in Riverdale, California, where an old cotton gin has been converted to hemp textile manufacture. The event will also feature presentations by a panel of hemp experts.
How to decarbonize 51 billion tons of greenhouse gases annually with hemp technology and regenerative farming will also be the focus of a COP26 “fringe festival” called “Beyond the Green,” to be held in Glasgow, Scotland, in November along with COP26, the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference.
A 2018 article summarizing research from the University of Connecticut concluded that hemp farming could “set a great example of a self-sustainable mini ‘ecosystem’ with minimal environmental footprint.” Henry Ford’s vision was to decentralize industry, with “small [factory] plants … on every stream,” a rural renaissance fueled not with oil but with alcohol. Hemp fuel and other forms of bioethanol are renewable energy sources that can be produced anywhere, contributing to energy independence not just for families but for local communities and even for the country. And it doesn’t place the burden of addressing climate change on the middle or working classes.