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News : International Last Updated: Apr 24, 2009 - 5:31:05 PM


Almost all biofuels used today make global warming worse; Director of Irish State research agency Teagasc says using crops for biofuel "exciting development"
By Michael Hennigan, Founder and Editor of Finfacts
Feb 10, 2008 - 10:30:09 AM

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Biofuel production is often more polluting than energy from fossil fuel sources. The rapidly increasing use of palm oil is one of the driving forces behind this. Production of palm oil in South East Asian plantations degrades huge peatland areas. The large amounts of carbon dioxide being emitted due to this degradation makes the use of palm oil many times more polluting than burning oil or coal.

These conclusions were drawn from new research by the NGO Wetlands International, amongst others.

Almost all biofuels used today cause more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels if the full emissions costs of producing these “green” fuels are accounted for, two US studies published last week  concluded.

The production of biofuels using food products, has been under sustained attack in recent times as the perceived panacea has been shown to be a cure that is worse than the disease (See Finfacts report: False Panaceas for Fools on Biofuels and Organic Food - includes contribution on Dr Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution)

Nevertheless, in January, Professor Gerry Boyle, the Director of the Irish State agricultural research agency Teagasc, which employs over 1,500 staff at over 100 locations (PDF, 90KB) throughout Ireland, including 200 research scientists and 300 research technicians at nine dedicated centres, spoke glowingly of the benefits of biofuel development for Irish
Prof Gerry Boyle
farmers and the environment:
”The possibility of using crops for biofuel is one of the most exciting developments in recent years and is a positive development for both farmers and the environment. Transport biofuel use will increase rapidly in the coming years. While much of this will be imported, there is scope for some increase in native production from tillage crops, and this needs to be developed to the maximum extent that our tillage land area will allow.”

The two US studies, published in the magazine Science, for the first time take a detailed, comprehensive look at the emissions effects of the huge amount of natural land that is being converted to cropland globally to support biofuels development.

The destruction of natural ecosystems — whether rain forest in the tropics or grasslands in South America — not only releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere when they are burned and ploughed, but also deprives the planet of natural sponges to absorb carbon emissions. Cropland also absorbs far less carbon than the rain forests or even scrubland that it replaces.

Together the two studies provide sweeping conclusions: It does not matter if it is rain forest or scrubland that is cleared, the greenhouse gas contribution is significant. More important, they discovered that, taken globally, the production of almost all biofuels resulted, directly or indirectly, intentionally or not, in new lands being cleared, either for food or fuel.

“When you take this into account, most of the biofuel that people are using or planning to use would probably increase greenhouse gasses substantially,” said Timothy Searchinger, lead author of one of the studies and a researcher in environment and economics at Princeton University. “Previously there’s been an accounting error: land use change has been left out of prior analysis.”

Dr. Timothy Searchinger
The Searchinger-led study says that most prior studies have found that substituting biofuels for gasoline will reduce greenhouse gases because biofuels sequester carbon through the growth of the feedstock. These analyses have failed to count the carbon emissions that occur as farmers worldwide respond to higher prices and convert forest and grassland to new cropland to replace the grain (or cropland) diverted to biofuels. Using a worldwide agricultural model to estimate emissions from land use change, the authors found that corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20% savings, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years. Biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on U.S. corn lands, increase emissions by 50%. This result raises concerns about large biofuel mandates and highlights the value of using waste products. (Report can be subscribed to here).

“Even if we’re dramatically wrong, it’s hard to get to a result that says you get a benefit over 50 years,” said Searchinger. 

The second study by the US Nature Conservancy and the University of Minnesota finds that converting land for biofuel crops results in major carbon emissions, actually worsening the problem of global warming instead of mitigating it.

The first-of-its-kind study will be published in Science later this month and was posted online last week (Report can be subscribed to here).

The study says that Increasing energy use, climate change, and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuels make switching to low-carbon fuels a high priority. Biofuels are a potential low-carbon energy source, but whether biofuels offer carbon savings depends on how they are produced. Converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands to produce food-based biofuels in Brazil, Southeast Asia, and the United States creates a ‘biofuel carbon debt’ byreleasing 17 to 420 times more CO2 than the annual greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions these biofuels provide by displacing fossil fuels. In contrast, biofuels made from waste biomass or from biomass grown on abandoned agricultural lands planted with perennials incur little or no carbon debt and offer immediate and sustained GHG advantages.

Dr. Joe Fargione
“This research examines the conversion of land for biofuels and asks the question ‘Is it worth it?’  Does the carbon you lose by converting forests, grasslands, and peatlands outweigh the carbon you ‘save’ by using biofuels instead of fossil fuels?  And surprisingly, the answer is no,” said lead author Joe Fargione, a scientist for The Nature Conservancy who is based in Minneapolis.  “These natural areas store a lot of carbon, so converting them to croplands results in tons of carbon emitted into the atmosphere.”

Fargione continued, “We analyzed all the benefits of using biofuels as alternatives to oil, but we found that the benefits fall far short of the carbon losses.  It’s what we call ‘the carbon debt.’ If you’re trying to mitigate global warming, it simply does not make sense to convert land for biofuels production. The clearance of grassland releases 93 times the amount of greenhouse gas that would be saved by the fuel made annually on that land 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.”

According to research, the conversion of peatlands for palm oil plantations in Indonesia resulted in the greatest carbon losses, or ‘debt,’ followed by the production of soy in the Amazon.

“All the biofuels we use now cause habitat destruction, either directly or indirectly,” Fargione noted.  “Global agriculture is already producing food for 6 billion people.  Producing food-based biofuel, too, will require that still more land be converted to agriculture.”

These findings coincide with observations that increased demand for ethanol corn crops in the U.S. is likely contributing to conversion of the Brazilian Amazon and Cerrado (tropical savanna). American farmers traditionally rotated corn crops with soybeans, but now, they are planting corn every year to meet the ethanol demand.  Instead, Brazilian farmers are planting more of the world’s soybeans – and they’re deforesting the Amazon to do it.

Fargione and co-authors Jason Hill, David Tilman, Stephen Polasky, and Peter Hawthorne from the University of Minnesota also found significant carbon debt in the conversion of grasslands in the U.S. and rainforests in Indonesia.
 
“In finding solutions to climate change, we must ensure that the cure is not worse than the disease,” noted Jimmie Powell, who leads the energy team at The Nature Conservancy.  “We cannot afford to ignore the consequences of converting land for biofuels.  Doing so means we might unintentionally promote fuel alternatives that are worse than fossil fuels they are designed to replace.  These findings should be incorporated into carbon emissions policy going forward.”

Researchers did note that some biofuels do not contribute to global warming because they do not require the conversion of native habitat. These include waste from agriculture and forest lands and native grasses and woody biomass grown on marginal lands unsuitable for crop production. The researchers urge that all fuels be fully evaluated for their impacts on global warming, including impacts on habitat conversion.   

“We will need to implement many approaches simultaneously to solve climate change – there is no silver bullet. But there are many silver BBs,” said Fargione. “Some biofuels may be one silver BB, but only if produced without requiring additional land to be converted from native habitats to agriculture.”

The European Union has recently tried to address the land use issue with proposals, which stipulate that imported biofuels cannot come from land that was previously rain forest.

But even with such restrictions in place, Dr. Searchinger’s study shows, the purchase of biofuels in Europe and the United States leads indirectly to the destruction of natural habitats far afield.

For example, if vegetable oil prices go up globally, as they have because of increased demand for biofuel crops, more new land is inevitably cleared as farmers in developing countries try to get in on the profits. So crops from old plantations go to Europe for biofuels, while new fields are cleared to feed people at home.

Likewise, Dr. Fargione said that the dedication of so much cropland in the United States to growing corn for bioethanol had caused indirect land use changes far away. Previously, Midwestern farmers had alternated corn with soy in their fields, one year to the next. Now many grow only corn, meaning that soy has to be grown elsewhere.

The European Union has set a target that countries use 5.75% biofuel for transport by the end of 2008. Proposals in the United States would require that 15% of all transport fuels be made from biofuel by 2022. To reach these goals, biofuels production is heavily subsidized at many levels on both continents.

The EU has a target of 20% renewable energy, including for example wind energy, by 2020. The 20% goal includes a 10% biofuels target.

The European Biodiesel Board (EBB) says that biodiesel reduces greenhouse gasses by 50 to 95% compared to conventional fuel, and has other advantages as well, like providing new income for farmers and energy security for Europe in the face of rising global oil prices and shrinking supply.

The EBB also stresses the importance of research and development to promote future biofuels technology with extremely positive CO2 saving performances, such as algal biomass. Research efforts should more specifically aim at further developing the full potential of very promising pathways such as biodiesel from recycled oils, animal fats and plants growing on arid lands (jatropha…) as well as improving current available technologies (high oleic sunflower).

Dr. Tim Searchinger said the only possible exception among food crops that he could see for now was sugar cane grown in Brazil, which take relatively little energy to grow and is readily refined into fuel. He added that governments should quickly turn their attention to developing biofuels that did not require cropping, such as those from agricultural waste products.

“The comparison with fossil fuels is going to be adverse for virtually all biofuels on cropland,” he says.

Global Food Prices have also been impacted by biofuel production: Wheat, rice and soyabean prices hit new records on Wednesday as Developing Countries grapple with soaring food prices
 

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