the ethanol binge: a hangover already

oil_palm_plantation.jpgIn case there were any remaining doubt, a new scientific analysis has confirmed that a headlong rush into biofuel production would be a very bad idea.  The public anxiety about gas prices, dependence on foreign oil, and global warming has taken on growing urgency in this country and Europe. Hence, the idea of growing our own fuel on American soil, getting the Middle-East petromonkey off our backs, and scoring some green cred to boot sounded almost too good to be true to many US politicians (the strongest supporters, not coincidentally, coming form big corn-producing states).

Well, there’s a reason for that: it is too good to be true. 

Bill Hobbs at the Ecototality blog has flagged the original report in Science, and a related story in The Guardian.  The latter summarizes:

“Dr Righelato’s study, with Dominick Spracklen from the University of Leeds, is the first to calculate the impact of biofuel carbon emissions across the whole cycle of planting, extraction and conversion into fuel. They report in the journal Science that between two and nine times more carbon emissions are avoided by trapping carbon in trees and forest soil than by replacing fossil fuels with biofuels.

Around 40% of Europe’s agricultural land would be needed to grow biofuel crops to meet the 10% fossil fuel substitution target. That demand on arable land cannot be met in the EU or the US, say the scientists, so is likely to shift the burden on land in developing countries . . .

Biofuels look good in climate change terms from a Western perspective, said Dr Spracklen, but globally they actually lead to higher carbon emissions. ‘Brazil, Paraguay, Indonesia among others have huge deforestation programmes to supply the world biofuel market’, he said.”

I personally saw the consequences of this process in Borneo a few years ago and it was deeply disturbing.  Some of the most magnificent and biodiverse rain forests on earth are going up in smoke at breakneck speed to make way for thousands of hectares of monotonous oil palm plantations.

The upshot of the new analysis is, perhaps surprisingly, that the current best course for reducing the carbon footprint of transportation is to focus on maximizing efficiency of petroleum-powered vehicles (get more Priuses and the like out on the road, for example) and mount an aggressive effort to conserve and restore forests.  And that equation doesn’t even take into account biofuel’s competition for food-producing land, or the consequences of nitrogen-intensive corn production for aggravating “dead zones” in coastal waters.  Hobbs concludes:

“Meanwhile, the allegedly pro-environment Democratic majority in Congress continues to push ahead with efforts to greatly expand the production of corn-based ethanol in the United States, pretending that it is a way to address both our dependence on foreign oil (though it will never amount to a significant portion of our oil usage) and to help reduce global warming, which it will not do.

Ethanol subsidies are just liquid pork for corn farmers. It would be better if Congress were to allocate that money to research into developing more efficient solar technology, more fuel-efficient and lower-emission hybrids, commercially viable hydrogen fuel-cell cars and such. But those folks don’t vote in the Iowa caucuses.”

Note to Congress: the party’s over.  All of which goes to prove the old adage that there’s no free lunch — with three martinis or otherwise.

Original source:

Righelato, R. and D.V. Spracklen. 2007. Carbon Mitigation by Biofuels or by Saving and Restoring Forests? Science 317:902.

About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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4 Responses to the ethanol binge: a hangover already

  1. Paul Richardson says:

    It really seems like this should be a major story in the media. The “liquid pork” analogy is fitting. Aren’t there also better ways to make biofuel than with corn, like with algae? This was in another one of your blogs, right? Is the government putting any R&D into any of these alternative biofuel sources? Seems like it would be a good idea for lawmakers to step back and systematically, and logically discuss these concerns with scientists and then take the data and make some sound policy decisions. It’s too bad that politicians would rather line their pockets with the gold from the corn and other lobbies and forge ahead with self enrichment. It’s kind of like how they don’t listen to engineers who say that a bridge is weak and may fall, or how they don’t listen to the majority of Americans who oppose starting some ill fated war in the Middle East. Thanks for sounding off on this important issue.

  2. Emmett Duffy says:

    Paul, you’re right — this should be a major story. It has got some traction in the press, partly through the heroic efforts of Lester Brown, among others. But the political momentum behind corn ethanol is strong so it will be hard to knock down.

    There is in fact some significant promise in biofuel from algae, the research on which was largely sponsored by the US Department of Energy some years ago. It’s now beginning to take off in the private sector. While algal biofuel is an exciting prospect in the emerging toolbox of renewable energy sources, it’s hard to see how it can make much of a dent in our oil dependency in the near term. The answer is still “silver buckshot” — investment in a range of new energys sources and in innovative conservation measures — rather than any single “silver bullet”.

  3. Julie says:

    I’m very pleased to let you know that I’ve awarded you a Bloggers for Positive Global Change award. For more information on this award see http://climateofourfuture.org/bloggers-for-a-positive-global-change/
    Thanks for all you do to encourage environmental stewardship and protection of biological diversity.

  4. Emmett Duffy says:

    Thanks, Julie, for the pat on the back and also for your earlier link to the post on Richard Louv. It’s an honor to know people out there appreciate this, and also to learn about Pines Above Snow. Keep up the good work!