February 8, 2008

Biofuels May Actually Hasten Global Warming

Biofuels, or so-called "green" fuels, are under currently under speculation as two new studies show that they may actually be counteractive if the full emissions costs of production are taken into account.

Biofuels are plant-based, and their production requires a massive amount of natural land to be converted into land for crops worldwide. These studies took this into account and noted that the destruction of natural ecosystems not only releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere when they are burned and plowed, but also deprives the planet of natural sponges to absorb carbon emissions. Cropland also absorbs far less carbon than the rain forests or even scrubland that it replaces.

The two studies showed that globally, new lands would have to be cleared in order to meet demand for either food or fuel. Also, it does not matter if it is rain forest or scrubland being cleared, the greenhouse gas contribution is significant.

"When you take this into account, most of the biofuel that people are using or planning to use would probably increase greenhouse gasses substantially," Timothy Searchinger, lead author of one of the studies and a researcher in environment and economics at Princeton University, told the The New York Times. "Previously there's been an accounting error: land use change has been left out of prior analysis."

The clearance of grassland releases 93 times the amount of greenhouse gas that would be saved by the fuel made annually on that land, said Joseph Fargione, lead author of the second paper, and a scientist at the Nature Conservancy. "So for the next 93 years you're making climate change worse, just at the time when we need to be bringing down carbon emissions."

The Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change has set the year 2020 as the time by which the globally community must change their greenhouse gas emissions in order to avert disastrous environment consequences.

A group of 10 of the United States's most eminent ecologists and environmental biologists today sent a letter to President Bush and the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, which read "We write to call your attention to recent research indicating that many anticipated biofuels will actually exacerbate global warming."

The E.U. tried to address the land use issue with proposals stipulating that imported biofuels cannot come from land that was previously rain forest.

But even with such restrictions in place, Dr. Searchinger's study shows, the purchase of biofuels in Europe and the United States leads indirectly to the destruction of natural habitats far afield, The New York Times said.

Dr. Fargione said that using cropland in the United States to grow corn for bioethanol had caused indirect land use changes far away. Previously, Midwestern farmers had alternated corn with soy in their fields, one year to the next. Now many grow only corn, increasing the demand for soy, which has to be grown in Brazil on land that forest land which had to be cleared.

"Brazilian farmers are planting more of the world's soybeans "” and they're deforesting the Amazon to do it," he said.

The United Nations recently formed a panel in order to study the new research.

"We don't want a total public backlash that would prevent us from getting the potential benefits," said Nicholas Nuttall, spokesman for the United National Energy Program.

"There was an unfortunate effort to dress up biofuels as the silver bullet of climate change," he said. "We fully believe that if biofuels are to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, there urgently needs to be better sustainability criterion."

With a proposal by the E.U. to set biofuel use to 5.75 by the end of the year, and one from the U.S. energy package requiring 15 percent of all transport fuels be made from biofuels by 2022, global demand has already shifted.

Syngenta, the Swiss agricultural giant, announced Thursday that its annual profits had risen 75 percent in the last year, in part because of rising demand for biofuels.

The Renewable Fuels Association, which represents ethanol producers, called the researchers' view of land-use changes "simplistic" and said the study "fails to put the issue in context."

"Assigning the blame for rainforest deforestation and grassland conversion to agriculture solely on the renewable fuels industry ignores key factors that play a greater role," said Bob Dinneen, the association's president.

"Biofuels like ethanol are the only tool readily available that can begin to address the challenges of energy security and environmental protection," he said.

Dr. Searchinger said that he believes governments should quickly turn their attention to developing biofuels that did not require cropping, such as those from agricultural waste products.

"This land use problem is not just a secondary effect "” it was often just a footnote in prior papers," he said. "It is major. The comparison with fossil fuels is going to be adverse for virtually all biofuels on cropland."


On the Net:

Princeton University

Nature Conservancy

The Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change

Renewable Fuels Association