Biofuels Deemed a Greenhouse Threat


Trucks are loaded with sugar cane, which will be used to produce biofuels, in Brazil.
Photograph: Paulo Whitaker/Reuters
More on Biofuels

Rethinking Green: Fuel for debate
Although ethanol appears to emit, by some measures, somewhat fewer greenhouse gases when burned in your vehicle, the intensity of energy required to produce some of ethanol’s key feedstocks, and its additional land-use requirements, have led several researchers to conclude that, in the end, grain-based ethanol may be no better for the environment than pumping existing fossil fuels from the earth.
22 October
UN seeks to clarify biofuel benefits, risks
Biofuels produced from wood and grass will displace areas used to farm food crops and contribute as much carbon dioxide to the atmosphere as burning gasoline, a study published in the Lancet says. A United Nations Environment Program study also urges caution in the search for biofuels, warning their environmental benefit is linked to whether the fuel is based in crops or production residues.
The New York Times/Green Inc. blog (10/22) , AlertNet.org/Reuters (10/22)
10 August
Does ethanol in Iowa cause deforestation in Brazil?
(The Economist) HOW green is ethanol? The Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), an American lobby for the stuff, obviously wants voters and politicians to think it is very green indeed. The association’s cool-coloured website plays down claims that ethanol may actually harm the environment. The biggest target of those claims these days is that growing maize to make ethanol causes indirect changes in land use by altering the incentives of other, often foreign, farmers.
Adding ethanol to the traditional markets for maize (food and fodder) inevitably pushes the price up. That encourages farmers, including those in poor countries, to boost production. If some of those farmers plough up savannah or cut down forest to grow the extra crops, the carbon dioxide released from the plants destroyed and soil ploughed up reduce the benefits of substituting the ethanol produced for petrol. If forests that are still growing are cleared, the environment loses the effect of their future uptake of carbon dioxide, too.
28 July 2008
Biofuels Down, Energy Saving Up in EU Climate Plan
(Reuters/Planet Ark) BRUSSELS – Biofuels are down and energy efficiency measures are up as the European Union’s ambitious plan to fight climate change works its way towards becoming law.
July 1
A radical new idea could save the world’s ecosystems. But what will it do to the economy?
Is there a way out? Could we abandon the fossil fuel economy without provoking a blistering backlash? Two things are obvious. We need a global system, and the current one, the Kyoto Protocol, is bust. It sets no cap on global carbon pollution, its targets bear no relation to current science and are unenforceable anyway, it contains loopholes and get-out clauses wide enough to sail an oil tanker through.
April 17
Brazil Lula Defends Biofuels From Growing Criticism
(Reuters Planet Ark) BRASILIA – President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva defended Brazil’s production of biofuels on Wednesday, rejecting criticism that they are furthering a surge in global food prices and harming the environment.
April 15
Biofuel: the burning question
(The Independent) The production of biofuel is devastating huge swathes of the world’s environment. So why on earth is the Government forcing us to use more of it?
Amid growing evidence that massive investment in biofuels by developed countries is helping to cause a food crisis for the world’s poor, the ecological cost of the push to produce billions of litres of petrol and diesel from plant sources will be highlighted today with protests across the country and growing political pressure to impose guarantees that the new technology reduces carbon emissions.
April 6
Scorn for corn
When talk turns to fossil fuels contributing to global warming, ethanol — usually made from corn — is often raised as part of the solution. But it’s contributing to the problem, not solving it. That’s the last line, in fact, in Michael Grunwald’s cover story in this week’s edition of Time. The rest of the story lays out very clearly where things stand in the biofuel and alternative fuel situation right now globally. He also details how politicians use ethanol to greenwash their energy policies. It’s a thorough update worth reading and sharing, as well as remembering the next time you hear corn touted as a substitute for fossil fuel.
March 27
UN’s Pachauri Urges Caution In Biofuel Use
(Reuters Planet Ark) BRUSSELS – The world must take care when developing biofuels to avoid perverse environmental effects and higher food prices, Nobel Peace Prize winner and climate change scientist Rajendra Pachauri said on Wednesday.
Speaking at the European Parliament, he questioned whether the United States’ policy of converting corn (maize) into ethanol for use as a transport fuel would reduce the emission of greenhouse gases blamed for global warming.
Controversy has grown over using food crops to make biofuels as an alternative to fossil fuels. Some environmentalists and politicians say it has raised food prices, distorted government budgets and led to deforestation in southeast Asia and Brazil.
March 25
(The Guardian) Top scientists warn against rush to biofuel
Scientists have increasingly questioned the sustainability of biofuels, warning that by increasing deforestation the energy source may be contributing to global warming.
Gordon Brown is preparing for a battle with the European Union over biofuels after one of the government’s leading scientists warned they could exacerbate climate change rather than combat it.
In an outspoken attack on a policy which comes into force next week, Professor Bob Watson, the chief scientific adviser at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said it would be wrong to introduce compulsory quotas for the use of biofuels in petrol and diesel before their effects had been properly assessed.
“If one started to use biofuels … and in reality that policy led to an increase in greenhouse gases rather than a decrease, that would obviously be insane,” Watson said. “It would certainly be a perverse outcome.”
Biofuels: a solution that became part of the problem
Using plant-based materials for fuel in cars and trucks was until recently heralded as the answer to the need to reduce carbon emissions from petrol and diesel fuels.
But the alarm expressed yesterday by Professor Robert Watson, the government’s highest-ranking environment scientist, that the headlong pursuit of biofuels could accelerate climate change, is the latest in a series of comments from senior figures that have shaken Whitehall.
Both Watson and the former chief scientific officer, Sir David King, have joined the chorus of those calling for a key “sustainability” clause to be introduced to ensure biofuels do not compound the problem by competing for land with staple food crops and speeding up deforestation.

February 15, 2008
(TIME) The Trouble With Biofuels
Maybe it was simply too good to be true. For proponents, biofuels — petroleum substitutes made from plant matter like corn or sugar cane — seemed to promise everything. Using biofuels rather than oil would reduce the greenhouse gases that accelerate global warming, because plants absorb carbon dioxide when they grow, balancing out the carbon released when burned in cars or trucks. Using homegrown biofuels would help the U.S. reduce its utter dependence on foreign oil, and provide needed income for rural farmers around the world. And unlike cars powered purely by electric batteries or hydrogen fuel cells — two alternate technologies that have yet to pan out — biofuels could be used right now.
BUT … More
(SciDev.Net) Crop biofuels ‘create carbon debt’
Two studies have shown that changes in land use to produce crop-based biofuels can actually result in more greenhouse-gas emissions than burning fossil fuels.
The studies, both published in Science last week (8 February), estimate the impact of converting forests and grasslands into cropland for the production of biofuels.
… The results of the studies do not surprise Roberto Schaeffer, researcher at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. “Nobody thought deforestation for biofuel production would be a good solution,” he told SciDev.Net.
“Biofuels are only effective in specific situations, as in the case of Brazilian ethanol. It is possible to increase production without devastating forests.”
Link to the article by Searchinger et al Link to article by Fargione et al
February 13
The Last Straw
A new generation of biofuels turns out to be another environmental disaster
By George Monbiot
… Partly in order to diversify fuel supplies, partly to cut greenhouse gas emissions, it [the European Commission] has ordered the member states to ensure that by 2020 10% of the petroleum our cars burn must be replaced with biofuels. This won’t solve peak oil, but it might at least put it into perspective by causing an even bigger problem.
To be fair to the Commission, it has now acknowledged that biofuels are not a green panacea. Its draft directive rules that they shouldn’t be produced by destroying primary forests, ancient grasslands or wetlands, as this could cause a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Nor should any biodiverse ecosystem be damaged in order to grow them(7).
It sounds good, but there are three problems. If biofuels can’t be produced in virgin habitats, they must be confined to existing agricultural land, which means that every time we fill up the car we snatch food from people’s mouths. This, in turn, raises the price of food, which encourages farmers to destroy pristine habitats – primary forests, ancient grasslands, wetlands and the rest – in order to grow it. We can congratulate ourselves on remaining morally pure, but the impacts are the same.
The third problem is that the Commission’s methodology has just been blown apart by two new papers. Published in Science magazine, they calculate the total carbon costs of biofuel production(8,9). When land clearance (caused either directly or by the displacement of food crops) is taken into account, all the major biofuels cause a massive increase in emissions.Even the most productive source – sugarcane grown in the scrubby savannahs of central Brazil – creates a carbon debt which takes 17 years to repay. As the major carbon reductions must be made now, the net effect of this crop is to exacerbate climate change.
Many people believe there’s a way of avoiding these problems: by making biofuels not from the crops themselves but from crop wastes. If transport fuel can be manufactured from straw or grass or wood chips, there are no implications for land use, and no danger of spreading hunger. Until recently I believed this myself(10).
Unfortunately most agricultural “waste” is nothing of the kind. It is the organic material which maintains the soil’s structure, nutrients and store of carbon. A paper commissioned by the US government proposes that, to help meet its biofuel targets, 75% of annual crop residues should be harvested(11). According to a letter published in Science last year, removing crop residues can increase the rate of soil erosion 100-fold(12). Our addiction to the car, in other words, could lead to peak soil as well as peak oil(13).Removing crop wastes means replacing the nutrients they contain with fertiliser, which causes further greenhouse gas emissions.
Full article
February 8
(NYT) Almost all biofuels used today cause more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels if the full emissions costs of producing these “green” fuels are taken into account, two studies being published Thursday have concluded.
The benefits of biofuels have come under increasing attack in recent months, as scientists took a closer look at the global environmental cost of their production. These latest studies, published in the prestigious journal Science (subscription only), are likely to add to the controversy.
These studies for the first time take a detailed, comprehensive look at the emissions effects of the huge amount of natural land that is being converted to cropland globally to support biofuels development.
The destruction of natural ecosystems — whether rain forest in the tropics or grasslands in South America — 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.
Together the two studies offer sweeping conclusions: It does not matter if it is rain forest or scrubland that is cleared, the greenhouse gas contribution is significant. More important, they discovered that, taken globally, the production of almost all biofuels resulted, directly or indirectly, intentionally or not, in new lands being cleared, either for food or fuel.
“When you take this into account, most of the biofuel that people are using or planning to use would probably increase greenhouse gasses substantially,” said Timothy Searchinger, lead author of one of the studies and a researcher in environment and economics at Princeton University. “Previously there’s been an accounting error: land use change has been left out of prior analysis.”
These plant-based fuels were originally billed as better than fossil fuels because the carbon released when they were burned was balanced by the carbon absorbed when the plants grew. But even that equation proved overly simplistic because the process of turning plants into fuels causes its own emissions — for refining and transport, for example.
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 said that the world has to reverse the increase of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 to avert disastrous environment consequences.
In the wake of the new studies, 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, urging a reform of biofuels policies. “We write to call your attention to recent research indicating that many anticipated biofuels will actually exacerbate global warming,” the letter said.
The European Union and a number of European countries have recently 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.
For instance, if vegetable oil prices go up globally, as they have because of increased demand for biofuel crops, more new land is inevitably cleared as farmers in developing countries try to get in on the profits. So crops from old plantations go to Europe for biofuels, while new fields are cleared to feed people at home.
Likewise, Dr. Fargione said that the dedication of so much cropland in the United States to growing 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, meaning that soy has to be grown elsewhere.
Increasingly, that elsewhere, Dr. Fargione said, is Brazil, on land that was previously forest or savanna. “Brazilian farmers are planting more of the world’s soybeans — and they’re deforesting the Amazon to do it,” he said.
International environmental groups, including the United Nations, responded cautiously to the studies, saying that biofuels could still be useful. “We don’t want a total public backlash that would prevent us from getting the potential benefits,” said Nicholas Nuttall, spokesman for the United Nations Environment Program, who said the United Nations had recently created a new panel to study the evidence.
“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.”
The European Union has set a target that countries use 5.75 percent biofuel for transport by the end of 2008. Proposals in the United States energy package would require that 15 percent of all transport fuels be made from biofuel by 2022. To reach these goals, biofuels production is heavily subsidized at many levels on both continents, supporting a burgeoning global industry.
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.
Industry groups, like the Renewable Fuels Association, immediately attacked the new studies as “simplistic,” failing “to put the issue into context.”
“While it is important to analyze the climate change consequences of differing energy strategies, we must all remember where we are today, how world demand for liquid fuels is growing, and what the realistic alternatives are to meet those growing demands,” said Bob Dineen, the group’s director, in a statement following the Science reports’ release.
“Biofuels like ethanol are the only tool readily available that can begin to address the challenges of energy security and environmental protection,” he said.
The European Biodiesel Board says that biodiesel reduces greenhouse gasses by 50 to 95 percent compared to conventional fuel, and has other advantages as well, like providing new income for farmers and energy security for Europe in the face of rising global oil prices and shrinking supply.
But the papers published Thursday suggested that, if land use is taken into account, biofuels may not provide all the benefits once anticipated.
Dr. Searchinger said the only possible exception he could see for now was sugar cane grown in Brazil, which take relatively little energy to grow and is readily refined into fuel. He added that 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,”. “It is major. The comparison with fossil fuels is going to be adverse for virtually all biofuels on cropland.”
See also Climate Change – The True cost of Biofuels
A new study from The Nature Conservancy and the University of Minnesota finds that many biofuels — seen by many as a potentially low-carbon energy source — actually emit more greenhouse gases than the fossil fuels they aim to replace.
According to the study, co-authored by Joe Fargione, a regional scientist for the Conservancy, “converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands to produce biofuels in Brazil, Southeast Asia, and the United States creates a ‘biofuel carbon debt’ by releasing 17 to 420 times more carbon dioxide than the fossil fuels they replace.”

One Comment on "Biofuels Deemed a Greenhouse Threat"

  1. Diana Thébaud Nicholson February 13, 2008 at 12:33 pm · Reply

    February 11 2008
    From http://www.samefacts/com whose motto we like: Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.
    A really bad day for biofuels
    Posted by Michael O’Hare, Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California
    This is a really big deal. (The original articles are here, behind the AAAS paywall.) There is now more than good reason to expect that no biofuel from seeds, possibly none (even cellulosic) grown on land that could grow food, will reduce global warming if substituted for petroleum products. The insight of the papers discussed in the article, and work by some others who have been worrying at this bone for years without anyone paying enough attention, is a remarkable synthesis of economics and plant/earth science.
    The first piece of the puzzle is the recognition that if a piece of forest is cut down, or natural grassland plowed up, to grow biofuel, decay and/or burning of what was there before releases an enormous puff of carbon into the atmosphere that needs to be counted along with the carbon releases of the biofuel crop. Even spreading the initial release over decades of biofuel growing, it is large enough to push almost any biofuel’s global warming intensity way above that of gasoline, especially because it all occurs right at the beginning of the future rather than a few years or decades down the line. Read more

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