The Balance

The article that immediately caught my eye this morning was this one from the New York Times on a study appearing in Science:

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.”

Before commenting further on this article I want to stipulate two things. First, I haven’t read the original Science article and I don’t plan to pay for the privilege of doing so. There will be several questions in my comments on the subject that somebody who has read the article might do me the kindness of answering. Second, I believe that corn subsidies for the purpose of ethanol production are inefficient, deleterious, and should be eliminated.

Appearing as it does in the New York Times much of the likely audience for this article (which is all that most of them will ever know about the Science article), will be Americans whom I suspect will take away the wrong message, that changes in U. S. agricultural policy targeted at achieving energy self-sufficiency are causing a substantial increase in greenhouse gas production. I wouldn’t be surprised if these changes were causing a relative increase but I’d be very surprised if the increase were more than, say, the use of millions of hectares of Brazilian land for sugar production in Brazil’s decade-long project to reduce its petroleum consumption (which I suspect is the major culprit) or Europe’s increasing use of biofuels. Is U. S. crop production for biofuels a more significant cause of increasing clearing of rainforest and savannah for agricultural use than the tariffs and subsidies in the countries themselves?

I’ve mentioned here before that in the United States a million acres of prime farmland per year are being converted to other purposes, simply because the land is more valuable for those purposes than as farmland. Has the study taken that into account? And have the authors of the study done their homework and taken this study into account? Surely the burden of proof is on the last to publish rather than the other way around.

How does the enormous growth in population and urbanization in the Middle East factor into this land use equation?

Or China’s highly subsidized relatively inefficient agricultural systems?

Honestly, I wonder whether worldwide land management is an unnecessary complication in an already dizzyingly complex global warming picture? If our lives depend on efficient, prudent, and dispassionate bureaucratic management of all of the world’s land, then we’re all going to die. Particularly since an enormous amount of the world’s land, particularly in the tropics, are in areas that are, effectively, ungoverned or at least not under the control of the central government of the countries involved.

Finally, how does one balance national interest against global interest because, in the end, an all-powerful worldwide bureaucracy won’t make these decisions and issue edicts. If they’re decided at all, it will be through negotations and, believe me, national interest will be a prime item on the table for every country at the table.

3 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw Link

    With the same caveats, I have a few thoughts:

    Ethanol subsidies make a lot of sense from a certain standpoint. For a long time, the U.S. has given price supports to corn growers to maintain a cheap food supply, prevent farm land from being wasted and improve balance of trade. In a sense, ethanol subsidies are inexpensive — the government was already paying farmers to grow corn, why not encourage them to grow it for a national purpose. Corn farmers have not received price support subsidies for several years I’m told. OTOH, use of ethanol subsidies, instead of price supports, hurts “cheap food supply” and “balance of trade.”

    I don’t think there is an easy answer to most of this. Since I distrust most of the numbers, I would just prefer taxing what we want less of (gasoline) and let the market sort how what technology is the best. I also think that dropping trade restrictions on sugar and sugar-based ethanol would be consistent with energy goals and help the food supply (and I suspect Americans would benefit from better sugar in their diets). But it would hurt balance of trade issues and encourage more clear-cutting of the rain-forests. So what do I know?

  • and I suspect Americans would benefit from better sugar in their diets)

    But not, as I look around at my fellow citizens, from more sugar in their diets. 😉

  • Fletcher Christian Link

    Biofuels make perfect sense – but not in the form of crops grown specifically for the purpose, on land that could be used to grow food.

    There are quite a lot of ways of getting energy out of biomass that would otherwise go to waste – methane digesters, thermal depolymerisation and even such things as burning straw produced as a byproduct of cereal production. These would admittedly produce small fractions of the energy requirements of any industrial country – but why not use them?

    Another way of getting energy from sunlight (which is essentially what biofuel production is all about) is the growing of certain species of algae that happen to be high in oil. This does require quite a lot of water – but most of that can be re-used, and most of the rest of what’s required is large amounts of small(ish) diameter clear tubing. The advantage of this is that you can do it anywhere – perhaps in the middle of some otherwise useless desert. This process does require energy input to dry the algae at some point – but what’s wrong with letting the sun do that? The water being evaporated could even be recovered.

    Very little money is being put into these essentially small-scale “alternative” energy processes. They are not sexy enough, obviously, and therefore they don’t get any research money – while obviously useless things like wind turbines get lots of it. Obviously useless, by the way, for two reasons – unreliability and pitifully low power density.

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