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    Biofuels Deemed a Greenhouse Threat

    February 8, 2008

    Biofuels Deemed a Greenhouse Threat

    By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL

    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.

    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.

    Likewise, Dr. Fargione said that the dedication of so much cropland in the United States to growing corn for bioethanol had caused indirect land use changes far away. Previously, Midwestern farmers had alternated corn with soy in their fields, one year to the next. Now many grow only corn, meaning that soy has to be grown elsewhere.

    Increasingly, that elsewhere, Dr. Fargione said, is Brazil, on land that was previously forest or savanna. “Brazilian farmers are planting more of the world’s soybeans — and they’re deforesting the Amazon to do it,” he said.

    International environmental groups, including the United Nations, responded cautiously to the studies, saying that biofuels could still be useful. “We don’t want a total public backlash that would prevent us from getting the potential benefits,” said Nicholas Nuttall, spokesman for the United Nations Environment Program, who said the United Nations had recently created a new panel to study the evidence.

    “There was an unfortunate effort to dress up biofuels as the silver bullet of climate change,” he said. “We fully believe that if biofuels are to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, there urgently needs to be better sustainability criterion.”

    The European Union has set a target that countries use 5.75 percent biofuel for transport by the end of 2008. Proposals in the United States energy package would require that 15 percent of all transport fuels be made from biofuel by 2022. To reach these goals, biofuels production is heavily subsidized at many levels on both continents, supporting a burgeoning global industry.

    Syngenta, the Swiss agricultural giant, announced Thursday that its annual profits had risen 75 percent in the last year, in part because of rising demand for biofuels.

    Industry groups, like the Renewable Fuels Association, immediately attacked the new studies as “simplistic,” failing “to put the issue into context.”

    “While it is important to analyze the climate change consequences of differing energy strategies, we must all remember where we are today, how world demand for liquid fuels is growing, and what the realistic alternatives are to meet those growing demands,” said Bob Dineen, the group’s director, in a statement following the Science reports’ release.

    “Biofuels like ethanol are the only tool readily available that can begin to address the challenges of energy security and environmental protection,” he said.

    The European Biodiesel Board says that biodiesel reduces greenhouse gasses by 50 to 95 percent compared to conventional fuel, and has other advantages as well, like providing new income for farmers and energy security for Europe in the face of rising global oil prices and shrinking supply.

    But the papers published Thursday suggested that, if land use is taken into account, biofuels may not provide all the benefits once anticipated.

    Dr. Searchinger said the only possible exception he could see for now was sugar cane grown in Brazil, which take relatively little energy to grow and is readily refined into fuel. He added that governments should quickly turn their attention to developing biofuels that did not require cropping, such as those from agricultural waste products.

    “This land use problem is not just a secondary effect — it was often just a footnote in prior papers,”. “It is major. The comparison with fossil fuels is going to be adverse for virtually all biofuels on cropland.”

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    not my biofuel:

    !

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    Senior Member condiment's Avatar
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    Not to mention they increase scarcity of food, driving up the cost of living and increasing the risk of transportation infrastructure breakdown in the event of a drought or crop failure or malthusian catastrophe. In their defense, emissions produced from biofuels are carbon neutral, as the carbon emitted cannot exceed that which was removed from the air by the plants used to create the fuel.

    Centralized electricity charging battery-powered automobiles is the way of the future, with gasoline autos only being used for long-distance trips.

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    In the right lane gerv's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by condiment View Post

    Centralized electricity charging battery-powered automobiles is the way of the future, with gasoline autos only being used for long-distance trips.
    I think the article above tries to look at the whole picture. Food production is highly energy intensive these days. A lot of the energy used is not that clean and, even if it were clean, there is the additional issue of an ecostructure that is deteriorating as we try to grow more and more corn to fuel both autos and food animals.

    However... if you think transportation derived from the electrical grid buys you anything, I would suggest two things:
    1. Remember that these vehicles need to be manufactured first.... a process that can take up to 50% of the energy used by the vehicle throughout its lifetime. So whether it burns gas or electricity or whatever, there's a lot of something going up the smokestack.

    2. Most of the electricity generated in my state is coal-based. (I believe it's actually near the 80% level). Coal is most definitely a greenhouse gas culprit and I fail to see how moving all vehicles to electricity would help CO2 emissions overall.

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    Quote Originally Posted by condiment View Post
    Not to mention they increase scarcity of food, driving up the cost of living and increasing the risk of transportation infrastructure breakdown in the event of a drought or crop failure or malthusian catastrophe. In their defense, emissions produced from biofuels are carbon neutral, as the carbon emitted cannot exceed that which was removed from the air by the plants used to create the fuel.

    Centralized electricity charging battery-powered automobiles is the way of the future, with gasoline autos only being used for long-distance trips.
    I agree, although I would replace the gasoline in the equation with biofuels from recycled vegetable oils.


    Quote Originally Posted by gerv View Post
    I think the article above tries to look at the whole picture. Food production is highly energy intensive these days. A lot of the energy used is not that clean and, even if it were clean, there is the additional issue of an ecostructure that is deteriorating as we try to grow more and more corn to fuel both autos and food animals.

    However... if you think transportation derived from the electrical grid buys you anything, I would suggest two things:
    1. Remember that these vehicles need to be manufactured first.... a process that can take up to 50% of the energy used by the vehicle throughout its lifetime. So whether it burns gas or electricity or whatever, there's a lot of something going up the smokestack.

    2. Most of the electricity generated in my state is coal-based. (I believe it's actually near the 80% level). Coal is most definitely a greenhouse gas culprit and I fail to see how moving all vehicles to electricity would help CO2 emissions overall.
    There's an entire infrastructure that needs to be transitioned away from fossil carbon fuels-- not just the autos, but the electrical grid as well. Clean cars plugging into a clean grid will be what we need (not forgetting that this is a "car-free" forum).

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    Instigator at best kjohnnytarr's Avatar
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    In other words: burning ANY fuels adds crap to the atmosphere. Surprise!
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    Quote Originally Posted by kjohnnytarr View Post
    In other words: burning ANY fuels adds crap to the atmosphere. Surprise!
    Well, yes, but that's not really what the article is saying. Theoretically, biofuels should be carbon-neutral, but the article is saying that the full environmental effects haven't been factored into the environmental analysis of biofuels.

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    If biofuels were produced without using fossil fuels for farm machinery fuel or fertilizer, and without depleting the soil of stored carbon or causing soil erosion, and were distributed by a bio-fuelled network of pipes, trucks, pumps and computers, and were used to power cars made of cellulose, they would be a sustainable energy source. And if this were all done while preserving much of the rainforest for its climactic benefits, and setting aside enough agricultural land to feed the world's population, biofuels might eventually replace a tiny fraction of current oil usage.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Blue Order View Post
    I agree, although I would replace the gasoline in the equation with biofuels from recycled vegetable oils.
    What recycled vegetable oil? If the world runs out of petroleum, it runs out of food. People aren't going to recycle vegetable oil, they're going to eat it.

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    Quote Originally Posted by cooker View Post
    What recycled vegetable oil? If the world runs out of petroleum, it runs out of food. People aren't going to recycle vegetable oil, they're going to eat it.
    Industrial biodiesel is made from vegetable oil produced specifically for biodiesel production. Biodiesel made by biodiesel coops (and individuals) is made from used vegetable oil collected from fast food restaurants.

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    Senior Member mike's Avatar
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    It is hard to beat the efficiency of petroleum; vegetable and other organic matter that has been converted by time and pressure.

    Chemically changing vegetable oil into burnable fuel is ridiculously inefficient. It is an interesting experiment, but certainly not a solution worth considering even as a component an overall energy plan. Take away the subsidies, and it doesn't stand.

    The most immediate thing to do is conservation. Hey, kid, turn the lights off! It takes a pound of coal to light a 100-watt light bulb for an hour. Ride a bicycle to go to the quickie mart for that pack of smokes. Drive vehicles that get 24 miles to the gallon rather than 12 miles to the gallon. Replace incandecent bulbs with LED or Fluorescent bulbs. Turn the thermostat down three degrees and put a sweater on.

    These are very simple things so close at hand for all Americans. Even without any new technology added to the mix, we can do things today that will greatly reduce our use of energy no matter what the source of fuel.
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    Senior Member wahoonc's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mike View Post
    It is hard to beat the efficiency of petroleum; vegetable and other organic matter that has been converted by time and pressure.

    Chemically changing vegetable oil into burnable fuel is ridiculously inefficient. It is an interesting experiment, but certainly not a solution worth considering even as a component an overall energy plan. Take away the subsidies, and it doesn't stand.

    The most immediate thing to do is conservation. Hey, kid, turn the lights off! It takes a pound of coal to light a 100-watt light bulb for an hour. Ride a bicycle to go to the quickie mart for that pack of smokes. Drive vehicles that get 24 miles to the gallon rather than 12 miles to the gallon. Replace incandecent bulbs with LED or Fluorescent bulbs. Turn the thermostat down three degrees and put a sweater on.

    These are very simple things so close at hand for all Americans. Even without any new technology added to the mix, we can do things today that will greatly reduce our use of energy no matter what the source of fuel.

    Conservation is going/have to be the number one method of reducing energy use. But until it happens people will continue to look for pie in the sky answers. I think that bio fuels have their place, but nothing and I mean nothing is going to be able to continue to allow the consumption levels of all types energy we have today. IMHO those of use that live simply and conserve are going to be way ahead of the game in the future.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Blue Order View Post
    Biodiesel made by biodiesel coops (and individuals) is made from used vegetable oil collected from fast food restaurants.
    I agree, but what I am saying it that when there is an oil and energy shortage, there will be a food shortage as well. At that point vegetable oil wil be too valuable to use in deep fryers, and there won't be any to collect.

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    In the right lane gerv's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by cooker View Post
    I agree, but what I am saying it that when there is an oil and energy shortage, there will be a food shortage as well. At that point vegetable oil wil be too valuable to use in deep fryers, and there won't be any to collect.
    There doesn't necessarily have to be a food shortage, but there will almost certainly be a shortage of processed foods. Which would describe the partially hydrogenate corn or soybean oil typically used in deep fat fryers.

    One good example about future shortages is to look at the lifecycle of a pound of beef. It takes about 10 pounds of corn to produce 1 pound of beef. That corn gets its start in fields that have been fertilized by chemicals that are heavily dependent on petroleum. Consider all the energy required to run huge tractors, move all the feed from A to Z, move the steer from Z to X and you have just touched the surface of the problem.

    Yet, despite all these facts, you can still grow carrots in your back yard. Farmers can supply healthy vegetables and meat products to local consumers without a lot of petroleum overhead.... but don't count on using the leftovers to fuel your trip to the mall.

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    Senior Member maddyfish's Avatar
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    A little bit of food shortage mightnot be bad for the world. And likely good for North Americans.
    Not too much to say here

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    Quote Originally Posted by cooker View Post
    I agree, but what I am saying it that when there is an oil and energy shortage, there will be a food shortage as well. At that point vegetable oil wil be too valuable to use in deep fryers, and there won't be any to collect.
    Exactly-- and this is already happening.

    The cost of food oil is already rising as a result of biofuel demand. This will probably cause great suffering in the developing world, where palm oil is a major source of calories.

    A New, Global Oil Quandary: Costly Fuel Means Costly Calories

    It's not accurate to project American standards onto the rest of the world. Here, oil is an undesirable source of empty calories. For most people in the world, oil is a major component of the diet. They don't recycle oil, they eat it. We are taking food out of their mouths in order to assuage our guilt about global warming. And now we learn that biofuel will actually make warming worse!


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    The article points out flaws in our current energy infrastructure, not the actual theory behind biodiesel.

    What we need is a more energy-efficient infrastructure. In any case, converting used plant and animal oils into usable energy (biodiesel) rather than throwing them away improves efficiency.

    Using less energy for daily tasks (going to work, getting groceries, etc.) also improves efficiency. That's where bicycles come in. Using a 4,000+lb. steel cage to move a 170lb. person to work every day is RIDICULOUSLY inefficient - almost all the expended fuel is used to move the car, not the person. A 25lb. bicycle is a much more "eco-friendly" option - not to mention better for one's health.

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    Sophomoric Member Roody's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by El Julioso View Post
    What we need is a more energy-efficient infrastructure. In any case, converting used plant and animal oils into usable energy (biodiesel) rather than throwing them away improves efficiency.

    No. At least, not necessarily. It's sometimes the case that recycling uses more energy than it saves. Energy development calls for careful economic and environmental analysis. That's the point of the article, and something that seems to be lacking in the USA. We are constantly coming up with "solutions" that are even worse than the original problem. Ethanol is the prime example, and biodiesel is shaping up the same way.

    This is because energy planning in the US is conducted by private energy companies--which are naturally interested only in their own profits. Government, universities and non-profit institutes should be doing the planning, not Exxon-Mobil and ADM.


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    Quote Originally Posted by El Julioso View Post
    converting used plant and animal oils into usable energy (biodiesel) rather than throwing them away improves efficiency.
    That might be true now, but it won't be in the future because there won't be any used vegetable oil to throw away or convert to fuel. People will eat it. All of it. I think people aren't getting how petroleum and fossil fuel dependent current agriculture is. There is no way we can run out of petroleum, maintain food production for the world's population, and still divert part of that food to powering our energy needs.

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    Sophomoric Member Roody's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by cooker View Post
    That might be true now, but it won't be in the future because there won't be any used vegetable oil to throw away or convert to fuel. People will eat it. All of it. I think people aren't getting how petroleum and fossil fuel dependent current agriculture is. There is no way we can run out of petroleum, maintain food production for the world's population, and still divert part of that food to powering our energy needs.
    Actually, organic farming grows as much or more food per acre. You just need more people to do the work. Considering that a third of the planet's population will soon be unemployed and living in urban shanty towns, we should be able to work something out.


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    Quote Originally Posted by maddyfish View Post
    A little bit of food shortage mightnot be bad for the world. And likely good for North Americans.
    (Are you forgetting that Mexico is part of North America?) It's not the Canadians and Americans who are going to be the ones going hungry. It's a large part of the third world.

    In my opinion, fuel from foodstuffs is immoral. We're going to take food from people and turn it into fuel so that "we" can continue driving oversized gas hogs? How do you think that makes us look to the rest of the world?

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    Senior Member mike's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Roody View Post
    Actually, organic farming grows as much or more food per acre. You just need more people to do the work. Considering that a third of the planet's population will soon be unemployed and living in urban shanty towns, we should be able to work something out.
    Well, Roody, it really doesn't work that way with organic farming. You can apply an enormous amount of labor and mechanical intervention into an organic farm, but you won't get yields equal to conventional farming. Conventional fertilizers and insecticides result in far greater production acre per acre than you can get with organic farming even if you have workers standing in the fields shoulder to shoulder.

    Organic fertilizers are nice, but they are puny compared with conventional fertilizers. Organic insecticides are hardly worth the trouble.

    I doubt that the world could sustain it's present human population if we went 100% organic farming.
    Mike

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    Quote Originally Posted by gerv View Post
    Farmers can supply healthy vegetables and meat products to local consumers without a lot of petroleum overhead.... but don't count on using the leftovers to fuel your trip to the mall.
    Perhaps you haven't heard of Mr. Fusion.


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    Quote Originally Posted by Blue Order View Post
    Perhaps you haven't heard of Mr. Fusion.

    And in that vein, Mr. Fusion was inspired by the Ford Nucleon.


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    In the right lane gerv's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by mike View Post
    Well, Roody, it really doesn't work that way with organic farming. You can apply an enormous amount of labor and mechanical intervention into an organic farm, but you won't get yields equal to conventional farming. Conventional fertilizers and insecticides result in far greater production acre per acre than you can get with organic farming even if you have workers standing in the fields shoulder to shoulder.

    Organic fertilizers are nice, but they are puny compared with conventional fertilizers. Organic insecticides are hardly worth the trouble.

    I doubt that the world could sustain it's present human population if we went 100% organic farming.
    My understanding is that much of the gain of so-called "conventional" farming is from the hybridization of seed strains. I believe this is the case with corn, for example, where 50 years ago -- with the then existing strains -- you simply could not crowd that many plants and still have a harvest. [disclaimer: I've read exactly one book on this topic...]

    So-called conventional farming with fertilizers may allow marginal or poorly developed soil to grow bumper crops, but to kind of twist your last sentence (), with the degradation of nitrates to downstream water supplies and the continuing issue of soil erosion, I doubt the world will be able to sustain this type of farming activity.

    I guess I should know about the downstream effects, since every Spring my family wonders if the city is able to filter enough of the nitrates out of the river water.

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