Biofuels Cause Global Warming
While ethanol and other biofuels have long been touted as a means of reducing greenhouse gas levels, it turns out that they have precisely the opposite effect because of some unintended consequences.
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.
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 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.
Not to mention the fact that we’re converting a cheap, nutritious food source into an expensive, inefficient energy source and thus raising the price of the former. Or, as a commenter at Tyler Cowen‘s place notes, “causing many farmers to replace barley crops with corn which is leading to higher beer prices”
What’s particularly baffling is that the Europeans, who have been on the environmental bandwagon much longer than we have, get a substantial percentage of their energy from nuclear power whereas we haven’t built a new nuclear plant in a generation.
Image via a 2006 article in QJ.NET, demonstrating that the concerns documented in these studies aren’t new.