Biofuels: Global Futility?

February 8, 2008

In recent months, a number of sources, including the U.K. magazine The Ecologist, have suggested that all of the supplementary (and necessary) processes around biofuels production may actually emit more carbon dioxide than if we were to keep using fossil fuels.

Now two studies, published in the journal Science, confirm that.

While biofuel crops, such as corn or sugar cane, help absorb CO2, they absorb far less than forests, or even scrubland, according to the study, which uses a worldwide agricultural model to estimate the emissions associated with the change in land use. Bottom line, the study concludes that the use of corn-based ethanol nearly doubles greenhouse-gas emissions over 30 years, while switchgrass — long thought of as an ethanol-producing alternative crop, would increase overall emissions by 50 percent if grown instead of corn on U.S. lands.

To cut to the chase, nearly all crop-based biofuels used today end up causing more greenhouse-gas emissions than ‘conventional’ fossil fuels do.

If this is true, why are we often told that biofuels are environmentally the ‘right’ thing to do? In calculating the CO2 emissions saved by using plant-based fuels, the energy used in the processing of a plant to biofuels is often overlooked. The production of ethanol especially can be extremely energy-intensive.

So is the energy used in establishing the cropland and growing the crops, and it’s not a trivial amount. Until now, forest land being converted to farm land — from the CO2 emissions associated with burning and plowing, and from the removal of CO2-reducing trees — hasn’t been widely assessed. The New York Times, citing the author of one of the studies, says that grassland clearance alone releases 93 times the amount of greenhouse gas that would be saved by the fuel made annually on that land.

As the West uses more biofuels — such as ethanol and biodiesel — prices for vegetable oil and other products related to biofuel crops will rise, and more land will in turn be cleared around the world to cover the growing demand, both for fuel and the displaced demand for food crops.

The European Union, through its Biofuels Directive, is also requiring the use of renewable fuels, with plans to also police the sustainability of these fuels and how they’re produced. But this may only serve to stoke the burgeoning international biofuels market and rapid deforestation elsewhere in the world, such as in Brazil’s rain forests, said the study author to the NYT.

This also opens up some complex, global food-sourcing issues. The movement to plant-based fuels is indisputably reducing our reliance on foreign oil, but in doing so — whether we’re actually increasing global warming gases or not — we may be increasing our reliance on foreign food crops. And that may have other economic consequences, in this age when food prices are already creeping up and food sourcing is a hot-button issue for those who scan product labels.

As a follow-up to the study results, ten prominent scientists have sent a letter to President Bush and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi that pushes for the reform of federal biofuel policy.

It may be difficult news for U.S. automakers. For the past several years, E85 (85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline) has been a feel-good, go-green public-relations device, and automakers continue to get a huge break in Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) requirements for any vehicles that are capable of running on E85 — essentially assuming that these vehicles will be run on E85 half the time.

Just considering the advantages after E85 is in a vehicle’s tank, the fuel brings about a 10- to 25-percent reduction in CO2 compared to gasoline, but vehicles running on E85 also get 15- to 20-percent fewer miles per gallon, typically.

Now that ethanol is still a political plus, but an environmental gray area, automakers may need to focus on the home-grown and political aspects of why to choose ethanol.

For those of us who follow energy issues and like to ponder just what will be powering our cars five years or 20 years down the road, the next few weeks promise excitement to rival the Presidential primaries, as spin wars break out between environmental groups and the ethanol lobbies, as they take positions on the situation.

This one sure has us thinking — tell us what you think. Is the ethanol bubble bursting? Is there hope in other biofuels? Or do the political advantages of biofuels (national security, diversified sources) outweigh the environmental disadvantages?

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