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.