Biofuels, once the 'silver bullet' of global warming, are causing more emissions than fossil fuels

Two comprehensive studies in Science magazine have concluded nearly all biofuels used today trigger more greenhouse emissions than conventional fuels if the emission costs of producing these so-called “green” fuels are calculated.

The studies take the first detailed look at the impact on emissions of converting natural land to cropland around the globe to support biofuels development – dashing hopes for the once-popular alternative energy source.

Destruction of natural ecosystems to produce biofuels not only releases greenhouse gases through burning and plowing but also deprives the planet of natural sponges to absorb carbon emissions, the Science studies concluded.

Cropland absorbs far less carbon than the rain forests or scrubland it replaces, and production of all biofuels has 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 people are using or planning to use would 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.”

Plant-based fuels were considered better than fossil fuels because carbon released from burning was balanced by carbon absorbed when the plants grew. But that equation overlooked the fact turning plants into fuels causes its own emissions — for refining and transport, for example.

Grassland clearance releases 93 times the 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.”

The European Union has tried to address the land-use issue with proposals stipulating that imported biofuels cannot come from land that was previously rain forest. But even with such restrictions, Searchinger’s study shows, the purchase of biofuels in Europe and the U.S. leads to destruction of natural habitats far afield.

“This land-use problem is not just a secondary effect — it was often just a footnote in prior papers,” he said. “It is major. The comparison with fossil fuels is going to be adverse for virtually all biofuels on cropland.”

So the stakes in the climate-change struggle just got raised.


What about “second generation biofuels”?

This article strikes right to the heart of the whole cause de jour mentality surrounding global warming. This headlong rush to jump on the latest cure-all bandwagon only exacerbates the problem to say nothing of driving food prices so high in developing countries that their populations face an immediate crisis of such proportion that it will make global warming seem like a miniscule irritant. To me it’s akin to the opium poppy growing situation in Afghanistan. We can’t solve our drug problem at home so we’ll starve out the Afghani farmers by destroying the only crop that, at present, allows them to feed their families. And now we’ll inflict our right-to-drive mentality on the world’s hungry. We won’t give up our drugs or cars, we’ll just starve the rest of the world so we can maintain our lifestyles. Solutions, like charity, begins at home and not by looking to the government for solutions. Instead let’s move to smaller homes that use less energy, get back to a single car, drive less and walk more, close the drive-thrus, throw away the electric or gas powered snow blowers and lawn mowers, quit heating garages we seldom use, quit lighting up our backyards like football fields, recyle and a host of other small steps. Let’s take responsibility for fouling our own nests and quit trying to maintain our way of life on the backs of others. And mainly, quit carping at government to do something…that’s just a stall tactic. They, like poorly thought out solutions, can only make the problem worse.
Powell B. lucas

As long as we have a government that makes decisions on environmental policiy and wastes our tax dollars on subsidizing the oil industry, we have the right and the duty to hound it to make better decisions. The government also has the duty to take a leadership role in conserving energy and in running energy conservation programs.

You want no government at all? You won’t find it in the real world. Instead of no government, we must have better government; especially since we and our children are paying for it.

“As long as we have a government that makes decisions on environmental policiy”

Biofuels were created by “government”?

(Well, clearly someone’s regurgitating the conlibertarian tropes without using his brain…)

Ethanol has been massively subsidized in the US by the Bush government, as a boost to agri-business and as a gesture toward energy security, with little concern about climate impacts. The Harper government in Canada, as usual, is following suit.

Harper’s buddy Ken Boessenkool lobbies for the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association.

CRFA head Kory Teneycke is a former Reform activist and was a Con strategist during the last election…

CRFA members include Agricore, Archer Daniels Midland, BASF, Cargill, General Motors, Monsanto, Pioneer Dupont, Suncor Energy Products, Shell Canada, and Sylvite (fertilizer)…

And about subsidies:

My bad, I meant PBL, not you.

– Frank Bi,

I meant to quote PBL – again, my bad.

PBL, you said,

“Solutions, like charity, begins at home and not by looking to the government for solutions.” – PBL

Which has what to do with biofuels and their problems? Were biofuels created by “government”? What does the problem of biofuels causing more emissions have to do with “Big Government”?

Frank Bi,

VJ I have a question. Your comment on the tax dollars that subsidize the oil industry also apply, I presume, to the subsidies (called incentives in Ontario)paid to the automobile industry or the “incentives” offered to Inco to open up Voisey’s Bay or the “assistance” in hundreds of millions of dollars paid to Bombardier in Quebec or the “inducements” offered to Michelin in Nova Scotia. If such is the case then I couldn’t agree more. The only time government should dole out money to any company is when that company is barred from exporting to another country by means of unfair trade practices and then it should be only selective tax breaks on those particular products that are geared for export to the offending country.
However, in your response, I detect the usual knee-jerk reaction of those who follow the mantra of the socialists. “Repeat something often enough and pretty soon it becomes accepted as unquestioned fact” For myself, I want to see the numbers that show that the oil industry gets any greater subsidies than other large corporations. Just repeating the same old theme doesn’t make it so. In fact, I tend to believe that if all the petroleum was located east of the Manitoba border there would be little or no comment about so-called subsidies. Show me the money!
Powell B. Lucas

PBL, maybe first you can show us by what “logic” you managed to turn a topic on the problems of biofuels into a rant against “Big Government”. See my reply above.

Frank Bi,

PBL, you could start by looking at all the record profits the big oil companies are making in Alberta for instance. This after they were crying and moaning about how they would suffer if the government of Alberta actually raised the royalties so that Albertans would get a better price for the resource that belongs to us.
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The conversion of plant oils, which are triglycerides,
for the prepartion of biodiesel requires reaction with methanol to give methyl esters of the long-chain fatty acid moieties attached to glyerol. The methanol is produce by reaction of methane and water at 900 deg C in the present of a metal catalyst to give “synthesis gas” which is a mixture of 3 parts hydrogen and one part carbon monoxide. The heat for this reaction is obtained from the combustion of natural gas. The synthesis gas is compressed to high pressure and heated to about 500 deg C in the presence of a different metal catalyst to give methanol(aka wood alcohol or methyl hydrate). This is also an energy intensive process.

The plant oil (one part), methanol (slightly more than three parts) and a small amount of sodium hydroxide are mixed together and heated. The sodium hydoxide catalizes
the conversion to the the methyl esters. This reaction is known as transesterifcation. After the conversion is complete the reaction mixture is washed with water to remove glycerol and sodium hydroxide and the crude product is dried and distilled. The purified mixture of methyl esters is then blended with diesel fuel to give “biodiesel”.

All of the above processes require an lot of energy which results in the production of much carbon dioxide.
The extraction, purification, and transport of natural gas to the synthesis gas plant also require energy with subsequent release of carbon dioxide. Raw natural gas always contains a fair amount of carbon dioxide, which removed and vented to the atmosphere before being compressed and distrubuted via pipelines for consumption.

You don’t have to be an organic chemist like me to get the idea that bodiesel is not enviromentaly friendly after all. Currently methanol sells for about 70 cents per liter and used as fuel for racing cars. Unfortunately it is not volatile enough for use as a fuel for cars, especially in cold climates.

Biofuels (and carbon capture) are a ‘catastrophe’ for future humankind. The decisions being taken by governments around the world in the quest for sustainability are a catastrophe for humankind in the long-term. Two of these decisions at the forefront of news are biofuels, and carbon capture and storage.

Biofuels – the fuel revolution that will supposedly help us:
(1) Growing crops in the United States for biofuels requires around the same energy input for fertilisers and processing the crops as that saved by replacing petrol on the forecourt (Biofuels - A solution worse than the problem, Daily Telegraph).
(2) By harvesting the peat bogs for biofuels, we release 30 times more carbon dioxide than will be recouped by burning the biofuel produced (Prof. Jack Riley, University of Nottingham).
(3) Growing biofuels takes a lot of land and huge amounts of water – neither of which the world has to spare.
(4) China and India risk famine if they proceed with their biofuels plans, because they don’t have enough water to grow both fuel and food (International Water Management Institute).
(5) Biofuels are killing forests and leading to more global warming, besides taking land away from food crops (Global Forest Coalition).
(6) The diversion of land meant for food crops to agrofuel production is a “crime against humanity” (Jean Ziegler, UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food).

Carbon Capture – putting off today what others will have to solve tomorrow:

(1) Carbon sequestration and storage (under our oceans and land) is an untried method of locking up carbon dioxide forever, but there is not a 100 per cent assurance that it will not escape. Possible escape routes include earthquakes, land shifts, terrorism (holding the world to ransom) or human disasters/accidents.
(2) Sequestration and storage of carbon dioxide is not a solution, but a problem that humankind will have to face in the future – one that might eventually threaten the existence of human life itself on Earth, for nothing ever designed has lasted forever.
(3) Governments, as usual, are only looking at solving problems today without any understanding of what this will bring in the future. They are attempting to lock up gases that are toxic to humans – leaving any problems for future generations to solve.
(4) If there was a rupture in the storage vessel, the ramifications for the world would be immense, to say the very least. Therefore, carbon capture is a method of putting off today what others will have to fix tomorrow (if they can).

Dr David Hill
World Innovation Foundation Charity
Bern, Switzerland