Hesperian Health Guides

Hesperian Health Guides


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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 23: Clean Energy > Transportation

Along with electricity, the biggest use of energy worldwide is as fuel for transportation in trains, airplanes, trucks, buses, and automobiles. Just as with electricity, people in wealthy countries use more fuel for transportation than people in poor countries. Pollution from burning fuel for transportation is a major cause of illnesses such as asthma, bronchitis, and cancers, and also causes global warming.

In order to burn less fuel and have more fairness in transportation, people in wealthy countries, especially the United States, must use more public transportation (trains and buses) and fewer private automobiles. Cities and transportation systems must encourage bicycles instead of cars.

The problem with plant-based fuels

A plant stalk ends in a gas nozzle.

When the automobile engine was invented, it was made to run on fuels made from plants, such as vegetable oil or alcohol. But soon after, when petroleum became cheap to produce, gasoline and diesel fuel (both made from petroleum) became the main fuels used to power automobile engines, as well as motorcycles, trucks, and airplanes. The petroleum industry worked very hard to prevent plant-based fuels from being used.

Now that oil has again become expensive, many countries are turning to plant-based fuels to replace petroleum. Fuel made from palm, soybeans, canola, maize, or other plant oils is called “biofuel” or “agrofuel.” This seems like a good solution because plants are renewable. But there are many reasons why agro-fuels will cause more problems than they solve.

  • Producing oil from plants that could be used for food leads to competition between growing fuel for cars and growing food for people. With so many people suffering from lack of food, we cannot afford to turn food into fuel.
  • One reason to reduce dependence on fossil fuels is to decrease global warming. But to produce the amounts of crops needed to make biofuel requires the use of petroleum fertilizer, farm machinery, and transportation of the fuel crop from where it is grown to where it is processed and distributed, and finally to where it is used. In the end, producing biofuels uses more energy than it produces, and causes more global warming than petroleum!
  • When forested land is cleared to grow biofuel crops, the trees that absorb global warming gases are destroyed. For example, biofuel made from palm oil causes 10 times as much global warming as diesel oil.

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