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Biofuels Update from CO2 Science

August 15, 2008  
Written by Staff
Science and Public Policy Institute    
Biofuels – Summary Update
In a world where food is fast becoming scarce in many places, it seems strange indeed to use the planet's land and water resources for growing anything else, as we note in our critique of Sir John Houghton's Creation Care Crusade, which is described by Feder (2007).

In this regard, for example, Johansson and Azar (2007) analyzed what they call the "food-fuel competition for bio-productive land" by developing "a long-term economic optimization model of the U.S. agricultural and energy system," wherein they find that the competition for land to grow crops for both food and fuel production leads to a situation where "prices for all crops as well as animal products increase substantially." In fact, in the May/June 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs, Runge and Senauer (2007) report that corn-based ethanol in the United States already "takes so much supply to keep ethanol production going that the price of corn -- and those of other food staples -- is shooting up around the world." And to put the situation in a perspective all can readily appreciate, they write that "filling the 25-gallon tank of an SUV with pure ethanol requires over 450 pounds of corn -- which contains enough calories to feed one person for a year."

What makes this situation even more disturbing is that not only do people (and especially poor people) suffer the adverse consequences of this perverse policy, so too does what we could call "wild nature" suffer, as it loses ever more habitat and freshwater resources to the great anthropogenic land-and-water grab needed to sustain the biofuels craze. In fact, even without the biofuels problem, Raven (2002) has indicated that "species-area relationships, taken worldwide in relation to habitat destruction, lead to projections of the loss of fully two-thirds of all species on earth by the end of this century."

Also concerned about the world of nature were Tilman et al. (2001), who noted that at the end of the 20th century mankind was already appropriating "more than a third of the production of terrestrial ecosystems and about half of usable freshwaters." Consequently, in order to meet the doubled global food demand they predict for the year 2050, mankind could well be appropriating more than two thirds of terrestrial ecosystem production, as well as all of earth's remaining usable freshwater, as has also been discussed by Wallace (2000). What is more, Tilman et al. conclude that "even the best available technologies, fully deployed, cannot prevent many of the forecasted problems," and the world's climate alarmists would make the problem even worse with their misguided biofuels program.

Additional light on this aspect of the subject has been provided by Righelato and Spracklen (2007), who also find that the use of biofuels for transport, particularly ethanol from the fermentation of carbohydrate crops as a substitute for petrol, and vegetable oils in place of diesel fuel, "would require very large areas of land in order to make a significant contribution to mitigation of fossil fuel emissions and would, directly or indirectly, put further pressure on natural forests and grasslands." As an example of this phenomenon, the two UK researchers calculate that a 10% substitution of petrol and diesel fuel would require "43% and 38% of current cropland area in the United States and Europe, respectively," and that "even this low substitution level cannot be met from existing arable land," so that "forests and grasslands would need to be cleared to enable production of the energy crops."

Adding insult to injury, Righelato and Spracklen hasten to add that the required land clearance would result in "the rapid oxidation of carbon stores in the vegetation and soil, creating a large up-front emissions cost that would, in all cases examined [our italics], out-weigh the avoided emissions." Furthermore, even without the large up-front carbon emissions, they report that individual life-cycle analyses of the conversion of sugar cane, of sugar beet, and of wheat and corn to ethanol, as well as the conversion of rapeseed and woody biomass to diesel, indicate that "forestation of an equivalent area of land would sequester two to nine times more carbon [our italics and boldface] over a 30-year period than the emissions avoided by the use of the biofuel." As a result, they rightly conclude that "the emissions cost of liquid biofuels exceeds that of fossil fuels."

Coming to much the same conclusion in a News & Views article in Nature was Laurance (2007), who discussed the ability of forests to reduce catastrophic flooding. In addition to this important virtue, he writes that "tropical forests, in particular, are crucial for combating global warming, because of their high capacity to store carbon and their ability to promote sunlight-reflecting clouds via large-scale evapotranspiration," noting that "such features are key reasons why preserving and restoring tropical forests could be a better strategy for mitigating the effects of carbon dioxide than dramatically expanding global biofuel production."

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