Foreign Policy Blogs

Are Biofuels A Bummer?

Two recent important studies, published in “Science,” are saying that biofuels are causing quite a bit more harm than good.  The A.P.’s H. Josef Hebert wrote this article (appearing in “USA Today”) on one of the studies.  “The researchers said that farmers under economic pressure to produce biofuels will increasingly “plow up more forest or grasslands,’ releasing much of the carbon formerly stored in plants and soils through decomposition or fires. Globally, more grasslands and forests will be converted to growing the crops to replace the loss of grains when U.S. farmers convert land to biofuels, the study said.”  The German Marshall Fund, one of the sponsors of the research, led by Tim Searchinger, one of their fellows who is also a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, has been looking at this.  Searchinger says in a policy brief that “switching from gasoline to corn ethanol doubles greenhouse gas emissions for every mile driven.”

The other study, “Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt,” from The Nature Conservancy and the University of Minnesota, has similar and complementary conclusions.  It asserts, among other things, that “Converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands to produce biofuels in Brazil, Southeast Asia, and the United States creates a “biofuel carbon debt’ by releasing 17 to 420 times more carbon dioxide than the fossil fuels they replace.”  The Nature Conservancy has a lot of excellent material on this study here, including an interview with the lead scientist for the report, Joe Fargione, the report itself, and an arresting slide show depicting some stark scenes of lands burned out for biofuel crop cultivation.  Fargione tells us that “Most people don’t realize that globally there is almost three times as much carbon in the plants and soils as there is in the air. Our natural ecosystems provide an incredibly valuable service of carbon storage and climate stabilization if they are left intact.”  (A critical new initiative that came from the Bali talks in December was a new emphasis on protecting and enhancing forests.)

Christopher Flavin, president of the venerable Worldwatch Institute, had this take on the reports and work his institute has done:   Time to Move to a Second Generation of Biofuels.  WI and The Sierra Club issued a report last fall, Destination Iowa – Getting To A Sustainable Biofuels Future, in which they recommended a number of policy directions including (a) accelerating development of cellulosic biofuel technologies and the infrastructure to harvest, transport, and process the new crops, (b) supporting farmers who want to invest in sustainable fuel crops such as perennial grasses or fast-growing trees, and (c) reducing tax subsidies for food-based biofuels and increase subsidies for fuels with a low-carbon footprint, such as waste and cellulose-derived biofuels.  WI had another highly useful commentary in January in which they said, among other things, that “The benefits of biofuels can be many: reducing dependence on oil, keeping money and jobs in the local economy, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants, to name a few. But not all biofuels are created equal, and their benefits in fact vary wildly depending on the feedstock, how it is grown and harvested, where it is grown, and how it is processed.”

An AFP story from January, courtesy of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s newsfeed, reports Internal EU report casts doubts on its biofuel strategy.  The article says that the Joint Research Centre, the European Commission’s in-house scientific body, “criticises an EU plan to boost the use of biofuels in transport, concluding that their costs outweigh the benefits.”

There’s a mountain of damning evidence piling up here.  Will policymakers heed it?  That’s always the $64,000 question on matters of energy, the environment and particularly climate change.  The “Washington Post” had a terrific article last week on these two analyses in which the reporter, Juliet Eilperin, notes that they “could force policymakers in the United States and Europe to reevaluate incentives they have adopted to spur production of ethanol-based fuels.”  She references a letter sent by ten senior scientists working on climate change to President Bush and congressional leaders urging them to reconsider the present path in light of the new studies.  “There is an urgent need for policy that ensures biofuels are not produced on productive forest, grassland or cropland,” the scientists wrote.



Bill Hewitt

Bill Hewitt has been an environmental activist and professional for nearly 25 years. He was deeply involved in the battle to curtail acid rain, and was also a Sierra Club leader in New York City. He spent 11 years in public affairs for the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation, and worked on environmental issues for two NYC mayoral campaigns and a presidential campaign. He is a writer and editor and is the principal of Hewitt Communications. He has an M.S. in international affairs, has taught political science at Pace University, and has graduate and continuing education classes on climate change, sustainability, and energy and the environment at The Center for Global Affairs at NYU. His book, "A Newer World - Politics, Money, Technology, and What’s Really Being Done to Solve the Climate Crisis," will be out from the University Press of New England in December.

Areas of Focus:
the policy, politics, science and economics of environmental protection, sustainability, energy and climate change