Could "Green" Fuels Worsen Global Warming?

April 14, 2008

The push to replace petroleum with renewable biofuels has a tremendous appeal. After all, wouldn’t it seem sensible to stop using a polluting, finite resource for some alternative you could grow – just like corn? Unfortunately, a pair of new studies suggest that biofuels aren’t all we might hope. In fact, they could result in an actual increase in global warming gases, notably carbon dioxide.

How could that happen? The problem is that the growing demand for biofuels requires more cropland, lots of it. Separate studies by the Nature Conservancy and Princeton University reveal why clean fuels can much the air.

In the U.S. alone, bio-diesel and ethanol production are escalating rapidly. In 2006, the U.S. produced just 250 million gallons of bio-diesel. Today, capacity is up to 1.4 billion gallons and should soon double. Ethanol production capacity is expected to surge from 4.4 billion to 6.5 billion gallons in the same period, while other data indicate demand will come close to 17 billion gallons by 2016 – roughly 10 percent of forecasted gasoline usage.

Producing this much of the two alternative fuels will require a tremendous amount of bio-feed stocks. Take palm oil, which is a preferred ingredient in bio-diesel. Much of it comes from Indonesia, where tropical deforestation is rampant. In fact, 27 percent of new palm oil plantations started out as tropical rain forest. The two studies show that the situation could be equally troubling with corn. Even if no new lands were plowed for corn stock, about 43 percent of current U.S. cropland devoted to growing corn would be needed for supplying ethanol refineries.

The Nature Conservancy report suggests that by replacing forests and grasslands, we’d likely see an increase, not a decrease, in carbon dioxide production for 93 years. The Princeton study says it’s more like 167 years.

Now, the researchers caution that there are some alternatives. Producing ethanol from sugar cane – as they do in Brazil – is much more efficient, and less likely to raise the production of global warming gases. And new cellulosic forms of ethanol production – which use bio scraps, like corn stalks and waste paper – might prove the effective alternative we need to petroleum-based fuels.

But right now, the race to replace petro-fuels could actually do more harm, say the reports, than good.

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