U.S. (finally) Begins to Recognise Biofuels Dilemma?

Elissa V.

Better late than never, right? Right on the heels of the Royal Society's biofuels study, the United States has released the results of its own studies designed to analyze the overall benefits and detriments of biofuel usage worldwide as well as specifically in the U.S. – and the results won't surprise anyone who has been keeping a watchful eye on this growing issue. After factoring in the full emissions costs of producing green fuels, the results show that an overwhelming majority of biofuels used today cause more greenhouse gas emissions than traditional fossil fuels, and significantly so.

The two studies – Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt and Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land Use Change – jointly target the systematic clearing of land for biofuel production as the main culprit in biofuels' recent fall from grace. And to really drive the point home, whether the land cleared for production is rainforest of scrubland, cropland still absorbs far less carbon than either of its counterparts.

These plant-based fuels were originally billed as better than fossil fuels because the carbon released when they were burned was balanced by the carbon absorbed when the plants grew. But even that equation proved overly simplistic because the process of turning plants into fuels causes its own emissions — for refining and transport, for example. The clearance of grassland releases 93 times the amount of greenhouse gas that would be saved by the fuel made annually on that land, said Joseph Fargione, lead author of the second paper, and a scientist at the Nature Conservancy. "So for the next 93 years you're making climate change worse, just at the time when we need to be bringing down carbon emissions." – New York Times

Undeniably, biofuels are a business, and with any business there is money to be made. U.S. farmers have been cashing in on the demand for vegetable oil while other countries, like Brazil, are in turn capitalizing on the demand for soy – a crop many U.S. farmers have forsaken for the more profitable corn. In fact, the Brazilian government recently announced a dramatic rise in deforestation rates in the Amazon – the result of increased soy farming.

The Brazilian government has announced a huge rise in the rate of Amazon deforestation, months after celebrating its success in achieving a reduction. ... Officials say rising commodity prices are encouraging farmers to clear more land to plant crops such as soya. The monthly rate of deforestation saw a big rise from 243 sq km (94 sq miles) in August to 948 sq km (366 sq miles) in December. “We’ve never before detected such a high deforestation rate at this time of year,” Mr Camara said. ... The situation may also be worse than reported, with the environment ministry saying the preliminary assessment of the amount of forest cleared could double as more detailed satellite images are analysed. -- Commondreams (links added)

While the European Union and a number of other countries have attempted to target this damaging domino effect with restrictions, the demand for biofuels in Europe and the U.S. continues to indirectly lead to the destruction of eco-systems across the globe.

International environmental groups, including the United Nations, responded cautiously to the studies, saying that biofuels could still be useful. "We don't want a total public backlash that would prevent us from getting the potential benefits," said Nicholas Nuttall, spokesman for the United Nations Environment Program, who said the United Nations had recently created a new panel to study the evidence. "There was an unfortunate effort to dress up biofuels as the silver bullet of climate change," he said. "We fully believe that if biofuels are to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, there urgently needs to be better sustainability criterion." – New York Times

As a result of the two studies' findings, 10 of the most respected ecologists and environmental biologists in the U.S. sent a letter to President Bush and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi emphasizing the dire need for biofuels policy reform. Though when it comes to Bush – the worst performing president on environmental issues in U.S. history – I wouldn't expect much, if anything, to be done. Luckily, there will be a new president in less than a year, so there's no where to go but up. Further Reading:

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  • Posted on Feb. 12, 2008. Listed in:

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