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Biofuel Warfare

We Need Sound Policy Before the Science Gets Hijacked

Ethanol pump SOURCE: NREL The latest scientific research suggests that current biofuel production might not reduce carbon emissions significantly, or at all. It's clear now that the issue is "wickedly complicated." Are we wise enough to handle it?

When it comes to the environmental and human implications of the rapidly expanding use of biofuels like corn-based ethanol or biodiesel, opinions vary wildly. Consider: In late 2007 Jean Ziegler, the United Nations’ right-to-food advocate, denounced biofuel expansion as a “crime against humanity” because devoting agricultural lands to their production could spark rising food prices, thus causing poor people to go hungry. But on the other hand, President Bush has extolled biofuels in his past three State of the Union addresses, and these shout-outs, combined with renewable fuel mandates in the 2005 and 2007 energy bills, have sparked a dramatic growth of biofuel production in the US. The most recent legislation required that by the year 2022, fuel producers must use 36 billion gallons of the stuff.

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Within the world of science, meanwhile, a similar split has emerged between biofuel critics and defenders. The pitch of battle increased dramatically last month after Science magazine published a blistering two-part attack on biofuels–a pair of studies claiming that this allegedly “green” energy source is actually terrible news for the greenhouse. Both papers focused on how the increasing production of biofuels must inevitably spark land use changes–for instance, the conversion of tropical rainforest to cropland–and how such changes will in turn cause dramatic net increases in greenhouse gas emissions.

Natural ecosystems are important carbon sinks, and land clearing itself produces considerable emissions to boot. Therefore, biofuels must pay off a considerable “carbon debt” before we can even begin to regard them as environmentally beneficial, argues the first Science paper. As study co-author Joseph Fargione of the Nature Conservancy has put it, “From a climate change perspective, current biofuels are worse than fossil fuels.”

The second Science study, by Princeton’s Timothy Searchinger and colleagues, honed in on the land use impacts of that U.S. biofuel fav, corn-based ethanol. The results were absolutely dismal: according to the study ethanol “nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years.” Already, though, two U.S. government researchers have published strong criticisms of the Searchinger study, questioning the assumptions feeding into the agricultural model that it employs. These critics write that “conclusions regarding the GHG emissions effects of biofuels based on speculative, limited land use change modeling may misguide biofuel policy development,” and add that based on their “own analyses, production of corn-based ethanol in the United States so far results in moderate GHG emissions reductions.”

The future of biofuels does not lie in corn, even if the future of many U.S. companies and politicians might.

So what’s going on here? At the very least, it seems that even as we’ve stampeded towards large scale biofuel production, a number of very serious concerns have emerged relating to land use. Biofuels appear suspect both when it comes to threatening food supplies and also when it comes to their net greenhouse gas emissions. But just how suspect depends heavily upon the details. Consider: Brazil has developed a booming industry for deriving ethanol from sugar cane, which is both cheaper and more energy efficient than deriving it from corn. And if we can bring online efficient, large scale processes for deriving ethanol from cellulosic sources like switchgrass and wood chips–so-called “second generation” biofuels–then there may be a much greater payoff in terms of reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

But while the jury certainly remains out on biofuels as a whole, we can already say that the bizarreness of U.S. politics, which has generated strong subsidies and protectionism for our domestic corn-based ethanol industry, is probably not delivering us much environmental benefit and may well be causing considerable harm. The future of biofuels does not lie in corn, even if the future of many U.S. companies and politicians might.

Indeed, enough doubts have been raised that no one can reasonably postulate biofuels as an automatic solution to cut greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector. Depending on the details, they could actually cause dramatic setbacks. But it’s also clear from the latest research that there will be more and less efficient–and more and less destructive–ways of generating and using biofuels. Despite huge hype, massive subsidies, and strong political support in the U.S., it seems corn-based ethanol runs near to last place in the competition.

So what’s the solution here? Well, what seems to be warranted is a wait-and-see stance of biofuel moderation, such as that adopted by Natural Resources Defense Council expert Nathanael Green. When I spoke with him recently I found him concerned about biofuels, but certainly not dismissive. In particular, Green was very happy that in the 2007 energy bill, the renewable fuel standard came with greenhouse gas performance standards, which theoretically ought to ensure smarter and more sustainable biofuel production.

However, just how well the new law works to prevent bad land use outcomes will depend heavily upon its implementation–which inevitably makes one wonder about the next administration and how it will handle the matter. After all, the biofuel issue is “wickedly complicated,” in Green’s words, requiring expertise in agriculture, climate science, economics, and much more to really get around it. That makes it ideal terrain for the hijacking of science and other expert analyses in service of parochial interests–like U.S. corn growers.

Ultimately, then, if we’re going to have sophisticated, non backfiring policies on biofuels, we need a new U.S. administration that takes expert analyses very seriously–and for that matter, a U.S. Congress that can also process exceedingly complex information. If we only still had an Office of Technology Assessment. I can’t think of a better and more useful task than a study of policy options for biofuels.

Chris Mooney is the author of two books, The Republican War on Science and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. He blogs on The Intersection with Sheril Kirshenbaum.

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