The scientific community is currently demolishing all the underpinning assumptions of the latest energy bill from Congress. It’s also a slap at Al Gore, on whose coattails some legislators are attempting to ride to collect “green votes”. Specifically, trendy climate-change policies involving ethanol and other biofuels are under attack because said fuels are actually worse for the environment than fossil fuels. Oops!
Two new studies in Science, a peer-reviewed journal, lead the way. One study was completed by ecologists at Princeton and the Woods Hole Research Center. The second was completed by the University of Minnesota and the Nature Conservancy. Both studies looked at environmental issues relating to biofuel consumption that hitherto had not been studied. Too bad decisions were made without this information.
The incentive for enacting the latest legislation which increased the mandate for ethanol production to 36 billion gallons by 2022 was that by adding corn-based ethanol and other “additives” to gasoline, we could achieve very modest reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions. Of course, no one really studied this assumption comprehensively…using scientific methodology. This notion gained steam, however, based upon Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” coupled with the political issues of relying on Arab oil and all added to the great economic benefit to American farmers that would come from such policy.
The first fundamental accounting error that pro-ethanol supporters made was that they never took into account the increase in carbon-dioxide that would result with the clearing of forests and grasslands to grow biofuels. It turns out that 2.7 times more carbon exists in soils and plant material than in the atmosphere. This carbon is released as carbon-dioxide when these areas are cleared. Clearing occurs by burning and tilling, both of which contribute to carbon-dioxide release. Compounding the problem is the loss of “carbon sinks” that absorb atmospheric CO2 in the first place. We have already been seeing this in the loss of rain forests around the globe. This issue has been studied extensively by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), though not in the context of the added pressure to produce biofuels. It should have been an obvious “red-light”.
When the hidden costs of conversion are included, greenhouse-gas emissions from corn-based ethanol over the next 30 years will double as from regular gasoline. It will take 167 years for ethanol use to “pay back” the carbon released by land-use conversion. In other words, biofuels actually exacerbate the problem they are supposed to solve.
The Minnesota study, which explored the “carbon debt” problem in greater detail, found that the debt for corn ethanol in the US is between 48 and 93 years. Indonesia and Malaysia, which have a 1.5% annual rate of deforestation to support palm oil production for Western European biodiesel, will have a carbon debt of 423 years.
Worse, biofuels are creating new environmental problems like deforestation (as mentioned above in places like Indonesia and Malaysia) and accelerating the reduction in biodiversity that may be worse over time that whatever the importance of observed climate change. In the US, increased corn production to support biofuels will produce a net increase in nitrogen, a known pollutant of water sources. Additionally, production of ethanol requires massive quantities of fresh water both for irrigation and the actual production process. Where is this water going to come from? Going down the biofuel highway may be damaging the planet more than it is helping it.
In the rush to fix a “problem” we are not analyzing our solutions in a methodical and careful manner and ignoring “Inconvenient Facts” that may impact upon our decisions. Arguing that such approaches (biofuels) are a “stop-gap” until some better solution comes into play is simply playing a grand bait-and-switch. When the added financial costs and dislocation of such a herky-jerky approach to environmental problem solving are added, you might argue that the status quo is preferable.