Friday, February 08, 2008

The Biofuel Myth

We've been sold the line that biofuels hold the promise of great GHG emission cuts. Maybe not. In fact, dirty old fossil fuel that biofuel is supposed to replace may actually be less harmful. From the New York Times:

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, are likely to add to the controversy.

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.”


JimBobby said...

Whooee! Right as rain. Mound. Mostly, anyways. I think there's an argument to be made for biodiesel manufactured from waste vegetation and used cooking oil.

When we grow crops specifically for fuel, the net GHG reduction is nil or worse. The big legislation mandating ethanol was steered through in the US by big commodities brokers -- ADM, Monsanto, DeKalb, etc.

Besides being ineffective vis-a-vis GHG's, the production of fuel from corn and other crops has the effect of raising food prices.

We need to guard against throwing out the baby with the bath water, though. When "green" initiatives turn out to be less than green, some people will say it's hopeless or that all green efforts are a scam.


The Mound of Sound said...

You may be right, JB, when it comes to switchgrass or lumber mill waste cellulose - sources that aren't tied to cultivation. Yet the big money seems to be looking to ventures in cane and corn and palm oil.

WesternGrit said...

My restaurant is part of a biodiesel program. This is a "clean" program, and no "new cultivation" is necessary to produce the product. We send them a couple of barrels of oil a month for purification. The next time you smell a VW Jetta Diesel cruisin' by, smelling like fries, it may well be one of "ours'"... Cheers!

The Mound of Sound said...

I hear you WG. It's good to see a product that companies used to charge to haul away being usefully recycled. What sort of deal do they offer the restaurant per barrel or do they just haul it away free?