Conventional Biofuels are Evil, Part 43124

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.

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.

Studies Deem Biofuels a Greenhouse Threat – New York Times

I think it is time to conclude that anyone who talks up biofuels is a) affiliated with an agri-biotech firm b) Big farmer c)Lobbyist, or d)Politician beholden to a,b and c.

It’s not even close. Clearing hitherto productive forest/grassland for biofuel growth  releases 93 times the amount greenhouse gases saved by the use of this biofuel. Diverting farmland for biofuel use makes things worse as the crop substituted will then be grown on land cleared.

The studies do give sugarcane and biofuel from agricultural wastes a cautious maybe. Corn ethanol and palm biodiesel will lead to the destruction of our ecosystems, make food more expensive and scarce, and actually exacerbate global warming.


  1. Joseph Fargione, Jason Hill, David Tilman, Stephen Polasky, and Peter Hawthorne. Land
    Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt. Science, page 1152747, 2008.
  2. Timothy Searchinger, Ralph Heimlich, R. A. Houghton, Fengxia Dong, Amani Elobeid, Jacinto Fabiosa, Simla Tokgoz, Dermot Hayes, and Tun-Hsiang Yu. Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land Use Change. Science, page 1151861, 2008.

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  1. Does this mean local producers of biofuels are contributing to global warming? or is this study more about the effects of neo-liberal business practices aka globalization? i.e. destroying rainforest for new biofeul crops and shipping the raw goods long distances. Can we paint all biofuel producers with the same brush?

    BTW – I don’t really have a horse in this race AND I am for the end of using combustion engines some day. Plus I’m not a, b, c. or d. I’m just thinking about selling my gasoline vehicles and getting a diesel to run biodiesel.

    But I am concerned these studies may have corporate sponsorship that could have serious pro-oil bias. (I am ready to be wrong.) I learned recently about what happens when the media hypes a new article in the journal Science BEFORE it can be vetted in a open manner.

    I’m asking some science friends in the know to look into it. 🙂

  2. Brian:

    I read the abstracts. The papers are not yet out on academic institutional subscriptions, so I will know more in a day or two. The work is genuine and reinforces the scientific wisdom that biofuels based on conventional commodity agriculture such as corn ethanol, palm oil biodiesel, etc are not sustainable, dangerous and will cause many more problems than they solve.

    Biodiesel made from leftover grease, on the other hand, is not that bad. What the science is telling us is that uncultivated land is a huge carbon sink and every time you clear land not previously used for agriculture and start growing input intensive crops such as corn, you are screwing the carbon balance over.

    So, simple rule of thumb, look for the source of the biofuel. If it is from a cultivated plant, it is not acceptable (sugarcane may be an exception, but not a sustainable one if Brazil starts chopping down its rain forests to grow cane). If it from some previously unutilized waste product such as vegetable oil, fast food grease, agricultural waste, etc, the lifecycle analysis is much more favorable as land use and the destruction of carbon sinks do not come into the picture.

    On a side note, big oil is already diversifying its holdings in the US corn ethanol based economy and stands to benefit a lot from the promotion of conventional biofuels. So, they are not in conflict, but in concert here. Big oil has the money and the infrastructure know how to get involved in new refinery building, pipelines, etc. Also, fertilizer production uses a lot of oil and natural gas, and increased corn planting leads to, you guessed it, increased oil/natural gas sales!

    On getting a car to run biodiesel, again, the source of your fuel is the most important thing. Piedmont Biofuels tries very hard to use local feedstock and locally generated waste. So they’re good. But if you start buying biodiesel sourced from Malaysia, woe betide you!

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