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Biofuels Deemed a Greenhouse Threat

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  • mtneuman@juno.com
    Biofuels Deemed a Greenhouse Threat By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL The New York Times February 8, 2008 Almost all biofuels used today cause more greenhouse gas
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 8, 2008
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      Biofuels Deemed a Greenhouse Threat

      By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
      The New York Times

      February 8, 2008

      Almost all biofuels used today cause more greenhouse gas emissions than
      conventional fuels if the full emissions costs of producing these �green�
      fuels are taken into account, two studies being published Thursday have
      concluded.

      The benefits of biofuels have come under increasing attack in recent
      months, as scientists took a closer look at the global environmental cost
      of their production. These latest studies, published in the prestigious
      journal Science, are likely to add to the controversy.

      These studies 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 plowed, 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 offer 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.�

      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.�

      The Intergovernment Panel on Climate Change has said that the world has
      to reverse the increase of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 to avert
      disastrous environment consequences.

      In the wake of the new studies, a group of 10 of the United States�s most
      eminent ecologists and environmental biologists today sent a letter to
      President Bush and the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, urging a
      reform of biofuels policies. �We write to call your attention to recent
      research indicating that many anticipated biofuels will actually
      exacerbate global warming,� the letter said.

      The European Union and a number of European countries have recently 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 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 instance, 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.

      Increasingly, that elsewhere, Dr. Fargione said, is Brazil, on land that
      was previously forest or savanna. �Brazilian farmers are planting more of
      the world�s soybeans � and they�re deforesting the Amazon to do it,� he
      said.

      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.�

      The European Union has set a target that countries use 5.75 percent
      biofuel for transport by the end of 2008. Proposals in the United States
      energy package would require that 15 percent 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, supporting a
      burgeoning global industry.

      Syngenta, the Swiss agricultural giant, announced Thursday that its
      annual profits had risen 75 percent in the last year, in part because of
      rising demand for biofuels.

      Industry groups, like the Renewable Fuels Association, immediately
      attacked the new studies as �simplistic,� failing �to put the issue into
      context.�

      �While it is important to analyze the climate change consequences of
      differing energy strategies, we must all remember where we are today, how
      world demand for liquid fuels is growing, and what the realistic
      alternatives are to meet those growing demands,� said Bob Dineen, the
      group�s director, in a statement following the Science reports� release.

      �Biofuels like ethanol are the only tool readily available that can begin
      to address the challenges of energy security and environmental
      protection,� he said.

      The European Biodiesel Board says that biodiesel reduces greenhouse
      gasses by 50 to 95 percent 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.

      But the papers published Thursday suggested that, if land use is taken
      into account, biofuels may not provide all the benefits once anticipated.


      Dr. Searchinger said the only possible exception 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.

      �This land use problem is not just a secondary effect � it was often just
      a footnote in prior papers,�. �It is major. The comparison with fossil
      fuels is going to be adverse for virtually all biofuels on cropland.�
      http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/08/science/earth/08wbiofuels.html?_r=1&hp=
      &pagewanted=print

      Other reports:
      http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=18800996
      http://www.kval.com/news/business/15443751.html
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