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How Bad Are Biofuels?

Two new studies published in Science (here and here) suggest that the use and production of biofuels substantially increases greenhouse gas emissions, particularly if such fuels are produced from food crops. Unlike prior studies, these reports sought to account for the loss of carbon storage due to the land conversion necessary to grow biofuel feedstocks. Once this factor is taken into account, both studies found, conversion to biofuels are big greenhouse losers. As the New York Times reported:

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."

The actual studies are not all bad news for biofuels, however. Both suggest that the production of biofuels from waste products could produce greenhouse gas reductions, and one of the studies suggests potential GHG emission savings from the production of biofuels from perennial grasses. Neither study has anything good to say about corn-based ethanol.

If we want to know the full environmental toll of biofuels there are additional factors to consider. Particularly when biofuel production requires the use or conversion of cropland, as with corn-based ethanol, these costs include increased water use (which is becoming a problem in parts of the midwest) and the loss of migratory bird habitat. The bottom line is that the energy "solution" most favored by the political class is no solution at all.

Curt Fischer:
Generally, the two new studies in Science agree only the point that biofuels from food crops (i.e. corn ethanol) are bad. Converting acreage that once produced food to produce fuels incentivizes somebody somewhere to bulldoze some more native ecosystem and convert it to agriculture, in order to replace the food acreage that was lost. This land use change releases CO2 from the soil.

But the two studies conflict on their other key conclusion. One study, with the lead author at the Nature Conservancy, said: "biofuels made from waste biomass or from biomass grown on abandoned agricultural lands planted with perennials incur little or no carbon debt and offer immediate and sustained GHG advantages."

In contrast, the other paper authored at the Woodrow Wilson school of public policy said "But if American corn fields of average yield were converted to switchgrass for ethanol, replacing that corn would still trigger emissions from land use change that would take 52 years to pay back and increase emissions over 30 years by 50%."

In case you missed it, the latter paper sets up a huge straw man. No one serious about cellulosic crops thinks they should be substituted for food crops. The entire point is that switchgrass can be cultured on lands not amenable to corn!

Unsurprisingly, the NYT (and most other media outlets) glossed over the conflict to find the lowest common denominator: biofuels are bad. I'm a researcher in the area, and I agree wholeheartedly that corn ethanol doesn't make a lot of sense. But, lignocellulosics have legitimate potential.
2.13.2008 10:01am
Temp Guest (mail):
Lignocellulosics may have legitimate potential, but not a whole lot of political potential. ADM and millionaire corn farmers aren't going to get rich from growing and processing weeds so funding for research in this area is not going to get the reflex, bipartisan (translation: "evil and stupid" as in the old political joke) support that corn ethanol subsidies did.
2.13.2008 10:27am
great unknown (mail):
Typically, this ignores another environmental cost - the sharp rise in food costs as feed grains are diverted to biofuel sythesis. For some reason, environmental studies do not take economic costs to individuals into account. Sort of like modern civilization is not part of the ecosystem. Noble savage, anyone.
2.13.2008 10:29am
anomie:
The bottom line is that the energy "solution" most favored by the political class is no solution at all.

That is one bottom line, with the emphasis on political preference. If we look instead at the long-term biofuel alternatives preferred by the R&D community (such as lignocellulosic ethanol and biodiesel derived from algae grown on desert lands), then the political emphasis on biofuels from subsidized food crops is quite distant from the bottom line. Studies of the long-term potential of these biofuel alternatives and how food-crop-based biofuels should or should not be used to bridge to a better biofuel future are more needed than incomplete media glosses on the effects of biofuel usage on greenhouse gas emissions.
2.13.2008 10:46am
genob:
Noooooooo! How can this be?!

How can I feel smug and superior as I drive around my bio-fuel converted beater Toyota, covered with political bumper stickers if this is true? Dammit....I am superior to the rest of you. I just know it.
2.13.2008 11:05am
Curt Fischer:

Typically, this ignores another environmental cost - the sharp rise in food costs as feed grains are diverted to biofuel sythesis.


This isn't quite true. The paper in Science that I criticized for its straw-man dismissal of lignocellulosics (a pun!) was rooted in economic analysis. Economic modeling isn't my speciality so I can't say one way or another if the models are any good, but at least they seem to be trying.
2.13.2008 11:06am
Adam J:
great unknown - When land is converted for biofuel then there is no diversion of feedgrains (since you're opening up a new farmland), and conversely when feedgrains are diverted then no land is converted (since you are using an old farmland). You can't have it both ways.
2.13.2008 11:13am
great unknown (mail):
Adam J: How much land has been converted to produce the currently-required corn-based ethanol for gasoline? Unless land is converted, there is going to be tremendous economic dislocation due to shortages of feedgrains.
2.13.2008 11:17am
Curt Fischer:

How much land has been converted to produce the currently-required corn-based ethanol for gasoline? Unless land is converted, there is going to be tremendous economic dislocation due to shortages of feedgrains.


If I remember right, there has been a slight displacement of soybeans for more corn, but the bigger effect has been a decrease in corn exports. The corn going into ethanol is largely taken from what used to be exported.
2.13.2008 11:20am
rarango (mail):
For those who know something about this topic (least of all me, did these studies control for increasing human population which, it would seem to me, place strains on food production.
2.13.2008 11:21am
A.C.:
What about all those farms that have shut down and reverted to grass or trees? Many of the farms I know from my childhood (and I'm not that old) went out of production some time in the 80s or early 90s. A few were sold off for development, but most are just sitting there unused. I assume they couldn't produce when corn was cheap, or else that the farmers' kids didn't want that kind of work, but there must be some price at which it would be reasonable for someone to farm them again. These aren't wild ecosystems, either -- some had been farmed for a very long time, and they haven't been fallow all that long.

That doesn't deal with the energy balance of farming corn for ethanol, but it does suggest that we can expand acreage without getting into virgin lands.
2.13.2008 11:55am
Mike S.:
I haven't finished reading the specific studies. Unfortunately, however, the pattern of both environmental activists and politicians enthusiastically supporting or opposing a technology without careful engineering study of the alternatives has been with us since the start of the environmental movement (or before, in the case of the politicians.)
2.13.2008 12:12pm
anonthu:
great unknown - When land is converted for biofuel then there is no diversion of feedgrains (since you're opening up a new farmland), and conversely when feedgrains are diverted then no land is converted (since you are using an old farmland). You can't have it both ways.

That is a very good point. Turning an existing Iowa corn field into ethanol will clearly have less GHG impact than cutting down some of the Amazon and planting corn for ethanol.
2.13.2008 1:16pm
Thomas_Holsinger:
Biofuels are an example of the triumph of faith over facts.
2.13.2008 1:52pm
anomie:
Your fact-free post is an example of rhetoric over facts.
2.13.2008 2:30pm
Ryan Waxx (mail):

Turning an existing Iowa corn field into ethanol will clearly have less GHG impact than cutting down some of the Amazon and planting corn for ethanol


As noted earlier, that's true only if you assume that no one will fill the economic void left by the one less Iowa cornfield by planting their own.

That might be a plausible scenario with one field, but the gap of hundreds? No one will fill that? Really? How would you stop them?
2.13.2008 4:05pm
great unknown (mail):
Ryan Waxx: By imposing total governmental control on the agricultural community. There have been rumblings in the literature that a world "in the throes of environmental disaster" cannot afford anything less than an authoritarian government led by concensus scientists.
2.13.2008 7:59pm
Curt Fischer:

great unknown: There have been rumblings in the literature that a world "in the throes of environmental disaster" cannot afford anything less than an authoritarian government led by concensus scientists.


"Rumblings in the literature"???? Cite please!
2.13.2008 9:18pm
Adam J:
Great Unknown- it always amuses me when someone relying on rhetoric, speculation, and unsourced assertions tries to criticize what a scientific study should have done.

You've yet to realize the flaws in your argument that the study should have considered increased food prices- even though myself and anonthu have pointed it out. If you are converting land, you are creating farms, and if you are creating a new farm for biofuel, you obviously aren't using an farm that was used for food. And if you aren't using a farm to create biofuel that was previously used for food, you aren't diverting food. Thus, it would have been disingenious for the scientists doing this study to mention diversion of food, when the biofuel production method that they are criticizing for environmental impact will not divert food.
2.14.2008 11:38am
Richard Aubrey (mail):
In our area, commercial fertilizer is more expensive because corn is hard on the soil. That's why so many farmers alternate corn and beans. Indeed, the ecologically superior native americans used to grow corn, beans and squash in the same gardens. Good for soil, squash grew better in the corn's shade, and Iron Eyes Cody was happy.
Now we're doing the corn-factory thing. In our area, the only new ground broken is for ethanol plants.
So if we're going to do something other than burn food, it isn't going to be done in traditional agriculture areas.
It will have to be in places where farming is not currently being done. And why isn't it being done? Generally, lack of water. Hell, the Colorado still has some water in it, I think. Go for it.
2.14.2008 11:57am
anonthu:
Thus, it would have been disingenious for the scientists doing this study to mention diversion of food, when the biofuel production method that they are criticizing for environmental impact will not divert food.

Exactly. And a strong argument against food-crop biofuels either way. Raise food price with lower GHG impact (diversion) or raise GHG impact with minimal impact on food price (conversion).

As noted earlier, that's true only if you assume that no one will fill the economic void left by the one less Iowa cornfield by planting their own.

"Planting your own" will still be either conversion or diversion...
2.14.2008 3:14pm