Argument: Biofuels production and use may increase greenhouse gas emissions


“The Problem With Biofuels”. CBS News. 12 July, 2008 – “Another problem is that refining some crops, like corn, into fuel can produce more greenhouse gases than simply using gasoline in cars in the first place. As can cutting down rainforests to grow sugar cane, for example. It’s what scientists call bad biofuel practice.”

“The Problem With Biofuels”. Washington Post. 27 Feb. 2008 – AS THE United States searches for alternative ways to feed its addiction to petroleum, ethanol and other biofuels derived from organic material have been considered a miracle motor vehicle elixir. The energy bill signed by President Bush in December mandates that at least 36 billion gallons of biofuels a year be used by 2020. Yet separate studies released this month by Princeton University and the Nature Conservancy reveal that biofuels are not a silver bullet in the battle against global warming. In fact, they could make things worse.

Corn and sugar cane are common sources of ethanol. Aside from emitting fewer greenhouse gases than coal or oil when burned as fuel, these biofuel crops remove carbon from the atmosphere while they are growing — thus making them nearly carbon-neutral. But the studies show that ethanol may be even more dangerous for the environment than fossil fuels are. As the Princeton study points out, clearing previously untouched land to grow biofuel crops releases long-sequestered carbon into the atmosphere. While planting corn and sugar cane in already tilled land is fine, a problem arises when farmers churn up new land to grow more fuel or the food and feed displaced by biofuel crops.

Elizabeth Rosenthal. “Biofuels Deemed a Greenhouse Threat”. New York Times. February 8, 2008 – 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.

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.”