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Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Biofuels today

Biofuels Deemed a Greenhouse Threat

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.

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.

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. source

Banning 'bad' biofuels and becoming better consumers

31 January 2008

The Commission's recent proposal to ban "bad" biofuels as part of its climate and energy package may benefit all parties and even the industry itself by "restoring some faith" in the much-critisised product, according to a January analysis from the Worldwatch Institute.

The proposed legislation rules out using biofuels produced on highly-biodiverse grasslands, deforested land or lands with a high carbon stock such as wetlands and grasslands, outline the authors.

"A ban on some biofuels is good because there is a natural tendency to take advantage of a bull market", the authors claim, referring to a tendency to expand production into new territories to cope with growing demand. "Rising demand for biofuels is encouraging farmers across the world to expand their cropland as much as the law and the market tolerate," the analysis elaborates.

The authors refer to South America, where soybean farmers and ranchers are "encroaching on the Amazon" and south-east Asia, where palm oil plantations are "continuing an alarming expansion across larger swathes of virgin forests and peatlands".

By realising that it is not growers but consumers who are most important in today's "raging biofuels market", sustainability standards gain crucial importance, the authors believe.

"People are interested in biofuels because they want to do something good for the planet – and if they realise that some of these fuels are linked to alarming social and environmental practices, the demand will dry up," according to Worldwatch.

Biofuels have many benefits, the paper says, such as reducing dependence on oil, keeping money and jobs in the local economy and reducing greenhouse gas impacts. However, it warns that the various benefits of biofuels vary "wildly" depending on the feedstock.

For example, US biodiesel produced from locally-grown soybeans is much more efficient and climate friendly than corn ethanol, the authors explain. What's more, sugar cane grown in Brazil brings "far higher" energy and climate benefits.

Next-generation biofuel crops produced with little water or fertiliser on dry or easily erodable soils may actually improve degraded soils and bring "far superior benefits" to even the best sugarcane ethanol, the authors state.

However, they warn that if such production does not aim to maximise social and environmental benefits, "they will have no more value than the dirtiest corn ethanol," the authors conclude.

If the differences between various biofuel crops are not recognised by the market then "there is no reason for a producer not to convert more land and throw more chemicals and water at the crop to make it grow," the analysis concludes. source

My comment:I wrote before on that. All I can say is that it's very good people are finally considering the consequences of their actions. Curious thing about the first article, however, is that the claim production of bio-diesel (when it's not connected with any ecological hazard) is 95 times more CO2 emitting than oil. I find this estimate ridiculous. Yes, if you take the CO2 exhaled by the owners, probably, but as a whole this is absurd. Because no one ever does the same estimations for fossil fuel which have to be drilled (ecological effect, also CO2 from the machines), conserved, transported and sold. It's absolutely ridiculous.

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