In light of this week’s Time magazine article calling biofuels a scam, I think it’s well past time to bring up that which has been touted as a savior for the automobile lifestyle.
The basic idea is this: the carbon dioxide released by oil that we get out of the ground contributes to climate change. When we grow crops like soybeans, rapeseed, and corn, we get a source of oil to burn as the plants ‘fix’ carbon dioxide from the air. The biomass that we can’t convert to oil offsets the carbon dioxide released in the agricultural process, so at the end of the growing season we’ve both generated fuel and captured some of our previous carbon dioxide emissions – and the more efficient our crop, the more we capture.
As a result of this idea, several subsidies are now available to biofuel producers in the US and other countries, and a growing number of local governments have mandated that their fleets be partially fueled by biofuels. King County Metro is one example – our buses are fueled in part by biodiesel. These subsidies to producers are intended to help switch US fuel consumers to locally produced fuels, rather than foreign oil.
Here’s where the problems begin. For starters, most of that subsidized fuel isn’t staying in the US, because the producers can make more money in foreign markets. That’s bad for us, because it means our tax dollars aren’t helping at home. On top of that, our biggest biofuel subsidies go to corn-based ethanol, and it’s becoming more and more clear that corn is one of the least efficient ways to produce biofuels. In fact, there’s some disagreement as to whether corn ethanol production even nets us as as much energy as it takes to produce.
Some of the other biofuel crops fare better in that regard. It’s been generally accepted that some of today’s biofuel crops are energy positive, such as soybean biodiesel. Unfortunately, it looks like biofuel proponents (including, in the past, myself) have been missing a key part of the puzzle. As biofuels become more widespread and more profitable, as the original niche market for used frying oil has become a worldwide industry, land is becoming an issue.
Now, every time demand for biofuels increases, it results in rainforest in the Amazon being burned down for oil crops. This is what that looks like from above – please do look. As the New York Times recently reported, two new peer-reviewed studies published in the journal Science show that clearing this land emits hundreds of times more carbon dioxide than biofuels grown there can recapture. In fact, even when growing much more efficient switchgrass rather than corn, using existing US cropland has similar results. The soybean growers groups that funded the study responded to these findings by suspending their grants to the University of Minnesota, the institution conducting the research.
It gets worse. The price of food is increasing – in part because food crops now must compete directly with fuel crops for land and fresh water. The United Nations World Food Programme estimated a few years ago that the number of undernourished people today, some 850 million, could be reduced to 400 million by mid-century. They now estimate that this number will go up to 1.2 billion. This is not to say that biofuels are the only problem – Increased demand caused by prosperity in China and India could account for some of the price increases in basic crops, as well as investors shifting their money from stocks to commodities – but a problem they are.
In addition, the loss of biodiversity caused by dramatically adding new farmland for growing fuel is devastating. We bring new diseases to the modern world by pressuring rainforest fauna into urban environments, and we seriously damage the ability of these ecosystems to adapt to hardships like disease and drought.
There could be a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s possible that algae-based, so called third-generation biofuels could dramatically reduce arable land use, using closed loop systems for water. Switchgrass-based biodiesel can use otherwise unfarmable land, but like used fryer oil, that’s a niche production market that largely serves to promote the biofuel industry.
Diesel Jettas aren’t going to solve our transportation energy problem. Personally, of course, I think the best real solution we have right now is to build electric rail transit so that we get a head start on adapting our community layout to a greener future. I hope this helps provide food (or fuel) for thought.