The World After Oil

As the planet warms up, eco-friendly fuels can't get here fast enough

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"We can find ways to make poor people have to choose between food and fuel, and that would be a disaster," Kammen says. "We have to be better than we've been in the past."

Buying in to Biofuel
The barriers to a bio-based fuel supply start way before cellulosic ethanol plants are built and global policy is crafted. They begin in the average garage. All cars can run on fuel that contains up to 10 percent ethanol. But only 2 or 3 percent of the whole automotive fleet can take the high amount of ethanol needed to make a major difference, estimates Sandalow. "It's critical to have vehicles on the road that will take ethanol," he says. These "flex-fuel" cars can take up to 85 percent ethanol, dubbed E85. Even as major motor companies produce such cars in greater numbers—it's quite possible you have one without knowing it—only about 900 stations across the country offer E85, and the majority of them are in the Midwest (one third are in Minnesota alone).

Before people will buy flex, however, they will have to buy in to the importance of biofuel. That's why, just a week after the Greaseball Challengers headed into Central America to learn about on-the-ground biofuel programs, President Bush set course a bit further south to visit Brazil—a country with perhaps the strongest background in biofuel, and one that provides a working model for stirring national pride in the alternative fuel revolution.

The Brazilian government began promoting ethanol use in the mid 1970s to avoid rising oil prices and to create a new market for sugar, the price of which had entered a period of global decline. Almost immediately, the state loaded the country with reasons to use ethanol. They offered low-interest loans on refinery construction, signed agreements with manufacturers to build ethanol-friendly cars, even gave taxi drivers incentives to convert their fleet.

Despite some bumps along the ethanol road, the Brazilian model is considered a success. Today about 40 percent of the country's transportation fuel is ethanol; in the United States, that figure is 3 percent. "The one lesson I take from this is, consistency counts," says Sandalow.

Consistency, and maybe a whole lot of coercion. Atmospheric change has grown so bad, says Kammen, that we no longer have the luxury of waiting until alternative fuels suit our lifestyle. The world must cut its carbon emissions from 7 billion tons to 2 billion in the next 40 years. If some monumental natural disaster occurs before that time—say, a massive chunk of Antarctic ice falls into the ocean—our window will shrink even more. We have to change, or be compelled to change, now. "We're going to need the next big step, that horrible tax word," he says. "We're going to have to tax that which we don't want, and what we don't want is carbon."

Kammen's plan, which he laid out in a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed and described to me later, reflects a person mindful of a reward-seeking society in which people are willing to charge thousands of dollars on their credit card to earn a plane ticket that, purchased alone, would have run a few hundred. In Kammen's proposal, when a person uses fossil fuel instead of carbon-neutral energy, he or she would have to pay a tax. "So," he writes, "the owner of a gasoline-powered Hummer who drives it 10,000 miles a year would pay $200 a year, and a Prius driver would pay $50." But instead of plumping Uncle Sam's pockets, this money—estimated at $555 a year for an average person—would be available for spending on eco-friendly products like solar panels or fast-growing trees. If you wished, he writes, "you could pool your 'cooling tax' money with your neighbors and build a windmill to supply your town with electricity."

As oddly enjoyable as this plan sounds, the situation likely won't reach this point. In early April, the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that the Environmental Protection Agency, which has refused to acknowledge that greenhouse gases contribute to climate change, has the authority to regulate these gases. This decision, the first by the Court to address global warming, means that the agency must take one of two actions: deny that greenhouse gases damage the environment—a stance that would conflict with their internal documents, says Kammen—or develop strategies to reduce harmful emissions. Whatever it decides, inaction is no longer an option.

The Future Today
Decades from now, when alternative fuels have become everyday fill-ups, emissions might not even be a consideration. The car of 2050, says Kammen, will be a "plug-in hybrid," running off the electricity of batteries lodged in the doors. (They can double as side air bags, he says.) The back-up fuel supply will be biodiesel. "That's pretty close to no emissions," he says. "That legitimately gets 350 miles to the gallon."

For now, though, electricity remains too difficult to harness economically, so some of us are stuck pumping grease into the refitted trunk of a Mercedes recently covered with a fresh coat of bumper sticker. Still behind schedule, the challengers waited outside for the staff of Hard Rock Café to bring out fresh fuel from the deep fryers. The line of field-trippers now curled around the block, and the bored bystanders filled the time with commentary. "It makes your car smell like French Fries," explained one woman who appeared to be a chaperone.


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