Friday, February 08, 2008

Another Day, Another Argument Against Biofuels

Two new studies out today show (popular forms of) biofuels are “actually increasing greenhouse gas emissions rather than reducing them,” reports the LA Times.

The studies, published in the Journal science, demonstrate how clearing land for growing biofuel crops and cultivating the crops releases more carbon than biofuels save from the atmosphere.

Biofuels are supposed to be a green alternative to fossil fuels because, in theory, the amount of C02 (a greenhouse gas) plants take from the atmosphere to grow should be equal to the CO2 released when you burn those plants as fuel. That may be true, but what about he carbon released when you create fertilizers used to cultivate biofuel crops? What about the carbon released by farm machinery used to cultivate the crop? How about the biofuel refinery itself?

Here’s another question nobody seemed to be thinking about: What about the carbon released when you clear land to plant biofuel crops? According to the Times report, “The biggest source of emission, by far, comes from land-use changes associated with biofuels.”

To demonstrate, consider this. In order to “achieve a net reduction in emissions,” a cornfield would have to be farmed for 167 years in the US. And it gets worse depending on the crop you’re growing or the type of land you’re clearing. For example, in Brazil it would take 319 years to benefit from clearing rainforest to plant soybeans. And clearing “
peatland” in Indonesia will take 423 years to start paying off. (Learn more about peatland in this Pound360 post... it's pretty cool.)

Does all of this mean biofuels are doomed? Not necessarily. If biotech can improve crop yields enough, and other technologies can make farming, refining and other processes more green (for example, solar-powered tractors and geothermal-powered refineries), then sure, biofuels might work.

But realistically, we’re probably a hundred years from that level of sophistication being the standard. Not only that, but as the LA Times reports, “the powerful agricultural lobby has put its weight behind food-based biofuels.”

Another option: use different stuff (other than corn or soy beans) for biofuel. For example, “municipal trash, crop waste and prairie grasses.” I like the idea of using waste as fuel, but don’t forget
Pound360’s preferred biofuel candidate, algae.

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About Me

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I started pound360 to channel my obsession with vitamins, running and the five senses. Eventually, I got bored focusing on all that stuff, so I came back from a one month hiatus in May of 2007 (one year after launching Pound360) and broadened my mumblings here to include all science.