Washington Post: biofuels exacerbate global warming


Richard Moore


Studies Say Clearing Land for Biofuels Will Aid Warming
By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 8, 2008; A05

Clearing land to produce biofuels such as ethanol will do more to exacerbate 
global warming than using gasoline or other fossil fuels, two scientific studies

The independent analyses, which will be published today in the journal Science, 
could force policymakers in the United States and Europe to reevaluate 
incentives they have adopted to spur production of ethanol-based fuels. 
President Bush and many members of Congress have touted expanding biofuel use as
an integral element of the nation's battle against climate change, but these 
studies suggest that this strategy will damage the planet rather than help 
protect it.

One study -- written by a group of researchers from Princeton University, Woods 
Hole Research Center and Iowa State University along with an agriculture 
consultant -- concluded that over 30 years, use of traditional corn-based 
ethanol would produce twice as much greenhouse gas emissions as regular 
gasoline. Another analysis, written by a Nature Conservancy scientist along with
University of Minnesota researchers, found that converting rainforests, 
peatlands, savannas or grasslands in Southeast Asia and Latin America to produce
biofuels will increase global warming pollution for decades, if not centuries.

Tim Searchinger, who conducts research at Princeton and the D.C-based German 
Marshall Fund of the United States, said the research he and his colleagues did 
is the first to reveal the hidden environmental cost of producing biofuels.

"The land we're likely to plow up is the land that we've had taking up carbon 
for decades," said Searchinger, the lead author. Estimating that it would take 
167 years before biofuel would stop contributing to climate change, he added, 
"We can't get to a result, no matter how heroically we make assumptions on 
behalf of corn ethanol, where it will actually generate greenhouse-gas 

Researchers said the findings applied to other forms of ethanol-based fuel as 
well, at emissions rates that varied depending on the nature of the land being 
converted and the crop being grown on it, with sugar cane ranking as the most 
efficient. The results of the studies are significant because industrialized 
countries are pushing so aggressively to boost biofuel production as an 
alternative to gasoline. The recently passed energy bill mandated the production
of 36 billion gallons of biofuels annually by 2022, compared with about 7.5 
billion gallons today. Just last month, the European Union's Transport Ministry 
proposed a directive calling on member countries to power 10 percent of their 
transportation with biofuels.

The studies emphasized the time it would take to pay back the "carbon debt" 
created by clearing land to grow biofuel crops, in the words of Joe Fargione, 
central region science director for the Nature Conservancy, but biofuel industry
officials -- as well as administration and congressional officials -- said it is
unfair to judge ethanol in its current form, because the industry continues to 
make technological advances.

"This is a good way of showing where we are, not where we're going to be," said 
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who is chairman of a House global warming panel
and who helped write the energy legislation. Noting that the measure set 
benchmarks requiring any new ethanol plants to produce a fuel that is 20 percent
more efficient than gasoline, and even more stringent standards for advanced 
biofuels, he added, "Once you set the standard, then it's going to drive where 
the investment is made, where the breakthroughs are."

James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental 
Quality, said he remains convinced that many biofuels produce substantial 
environmental benefits.

"Like any issue, there are ways to do it right and there are ways to do things 
wrong, and the same is the case to biofuels," he said. "We move as rapidly as we
can to second-generation [biofuels] because those offer the best opportunity for
a low environmental profile."

Brent Erickson, executive vice president of the Biotechnology Industry 
Organization's industrial and environmental section, said using renewable 
resources always made sense in the long run, compared with gasoline and diesel 

"It makes no sense to continue burning fossil carbon, which is essentially 
carbon that has already been sequestered for millions of years in the Earth's 
crust, and which when burned releases carbon dioxide and also creates a carbon 
debt that can never be paid back," he said. "It is much more logical to produce 
biofuels that recycle carbon, even if a short-term carbon debt is created. Even 
if it's 167 years, you're still better off than burning oil that can never be 
paid off."

But an array of senior scientists who work on climate change, including Missouri
Botanical Society President Peter H. Raven and William H. Schlesinger, president
of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, sent a letter to Bush and 
congressional leaders yesterday urging them to reconsider their energy policies 
in light of the new studies.

"While politicians in the U.S. and Europe have tried to craft policies dictating
that new biofuels will not come at the expense of clearing land, the papers show
that sometimes land conversion is often an indirect result of this expansion," 
the 10 scientists wrote. "There is an urgent need for policy that ensures 
biofuels are not produced on productive forest, grassland or cropland."

Alex Farrell, a professor with Berkeley's Energy and Resources Group who 
concluded in 2006 that biofuels produce a net environmental benefit, said the 
paper by Searchinger and his colleagues changed his mind.

"The qualitative result that biofuel produced on fertile land has higher 
greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuels is almost certainly true, even if 
it's only by a certain amount," Farrell said in a telephone interview. "But we 
can make better biofuels. The right thing to do is to give the biofuel industry 
the incentives and support to move to a more sustainable production method."

One of the biggest tests will come when the Environmental Protection Agency 
issues its analysis of the climate impact of biofuels, which according to the 
energy bill must include "direct emissions and significant indirect emissions 
such as significant emissions from land use changes."

Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.), a member of the House Energy Committee, said 
policymakers would have to rely on scientists to help them sort out such 

"Our challenge really is to find out a way to quantify these things, so when you
adopt a policy, you factor in these land use issues," Inslee said, adding that 
the new findings point out that "we ought to be open to new science, but we also
have to continue with upward leaps in biofuels."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company

newslog archives: 

Escaping the Matrix: http://escapingthematrix.org/
cyberjournal: http://cyberjournal.org

The Phoenix Project:

rkm blog: "How We the People can change the world":

The Post-Bush Regime: A Prognosis

Community Democracy Framework: 

Moderator: •••@••.•••  (comments welcome)