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Home > Feature Articles > Alternative Energy Solutions

Biofuels Limit Carbon Reduction, Studies Find

Fuel...plants...air. Which wins?

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california precipitation landscape and solar solutions The problem is moving fuel feedstock from one hand to the other and back again. The solution: use less fuel.

Two recent studies reported in "Science" journal calculate that the total cost of producing and using biofuels outweighs their carbon-fighting use vs. leaving the carbon in plants (and forests).

"When you take this into account, most of the biofuel that people are using or planning to use would probably increase greenhouse gases substantially," said Timothy Searchinger, lead author of one of the studies and a researcher in environment and economics at Princeton University.

"The clearing 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."

Dedication of cropland in the United States to grow corn for biofuels such as ethanol have caused indirect land-use changes in the global marketplace. Increased pressure on Brazil to meet soybean demand leads to Brazilian farmers planting more of the world's soybeans — and they're deforesting the Amazon to do it.

Think about it. Plants store more carbon than fuel that ends up in the air.

The answer is to drive less, manufacture less, and burn less natural resources. Period. "Behavior" is the form of conservation and carbon sequestration that works best.

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.

SOLUTION: "There should be more focus on producing biofuels from municipal waste and from land that can't be used for food crops," said Alex Ferrell, an energy and resource professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Soil and plants are essential stores of carbon, containing more than the atmosphere.

Seattle times "Biofuels make greenhouse gases worse, scientists say."

The tragic part of this story is that in our haste to innovate, we (the new clean tech inventors, public policy makers and venture capitalists...and yes, media, too) overlooked the simple reality --

  • Burning anything puts more carbon into the air.
  • Food comes first and WILL be grown.
  • The forests will come down because profit comes first.
  • Developing nations want what "we" have.
  • Fuel carries a high price for our natural systems, and our natural systems have been stressed to the limit.
  • Plunder is plunder.
The sad part of this story is that the head of the Renewable Fuels Association immediately attacked the scientific studies. Okay, I understand they have a vested interest. But isn't that what is causing the problem with petroleum? Vested interests?

I would much rather our leaders in ALL our industry groups say, "That's interesting...we missed that part of the equation. It looks like we have more work to do to find a realistic solution. Let's work together to find it because it's imperative that we DO find a good solution."

How do we use science effectively? First is fact finding. Then comes policy. Then comes implementation. Then comes more fact finding and refined implementation. It's time for some refinements.

The solution for most of us -- those of us not directly involved in fuel innovation or production -- is to conserve. Drive less. Drive better. Get creative with how to use less energy, less fuel.

If Americans are using 4 times the amount of resources everyone else in the world are using -- it's time we cut our use in half, and then half again, and half again. And tell the rest of the world we made a huge mistake being so wasteful so they don't follow too closely in our footsteps. Those are very black carbon footprints.

But first comes our American determination and ingenuity to meet the crisis head on. And we gorged ourselves on's time to diet.

Edited by Carolyn Allen, owner/editor of California Green Solutions
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