The Resilience Hub & Portland Maine Permaculture Message Board › Biofuels: Worse for Earth Than Oil?
This applies on so many levels...
more land used for biofuels...less land for food production= price spikes.
Yet another reason for energy descent reasoning and relocalizing food production!
Biofuels: Worse for Earth Than Oil?
Feb. 8, 2008 -- Clearing raw land to produce biofuels actually contributes to global warming by emitting large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, researchers have warned.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from new croplands carved into rainforests, savannas, wetlands or grasslands would easily surpass the overall amount of CO2 emissions reduced through the use of biofuels, according to a report in the Feb. 8 edition of Science.
"If you're trying to mitigate global warming, it simply does not make sense to convert land for biofuels production," said Joe Fargione, a founder of private environment protection agency the Nature Conservancy and co-author of the study.
"All the biofuels we use now cause habitat destruction, either directly or indirectly," he said.
"Global agriculture is already producing food for six billion people. Producing food-based biofuel, too, will require that still more land be converted to agriculture."
Converting land to grow corn, sugar cane or soy beans -- crops used in the production of biofuels -- creates a "biofuel carbon debt" by releasing 17 to 420 times as much CO2 into the atmosphere as the greenhouse gas reductions which the biofuels provide by displacing fossil fuels.
Carbon is stored in dead trees and plants as well as in the soil, and naturally seeps into the atmosphere in the form of CO2. Converting native habitats to cropland increases the release of CO2 into the air, the report said.
It would take years, and in some cases centuries, before biofuels derived from crops on converted land would lead to a net reduction of greenhouse gases, according to the report.
The researchers calculated that in Indonesia, where wetlands are being converted to grow palm oil to produce biofuels, it will take 423 years before biofuel CO2 emission savings would repay the carbon debt caused by the land conversion.
"We don't have proper incentives in place because landowners are rewarded for producing palm oil and other products but not rewarded for carbon management," said report co-author Stephen Polasky, an applied economics professor at University of Minnesota.
"This creates incentives for excessive land clearing and can result in large increases in carbon emissions."
An incentive for carbon sequestration or a penalty for carbon emissions is needed in order to slow CO2 emissions and environmental destruction, Polasky said.
The researchers noted that strong growth in the demand for corn-based ethanol in the United States has led to the increasing destruction of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil.
To address the ethanol demand, US farmers have stopped rotating corn crops with soy, leaving their Brazilian counterparts to produce more soybeans to meet rising global demand, resulting in further Amazon deforestation, they said.
The report stresses that certain biofuels do not contribute to global warming because they leave the natural ecosystem intact, and that obtaining biofuels from biomass waste or forestry products such as wood chips causes less harm to the environment and is the aim of several scientists.
Studies Deem Biofuels a Greenhouse Threat
By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
Published: 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.?
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 National Energy 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.?