Image courtesy of TheFriendlyFiend via flickr
In a clear sign that the biofuel debate is still far from being resolved, the publication of two new studies has once again raised doubts about the alternative fuels' supposed merits in helping to mitigate climate change. According to the new research, which will be published in the journal Science, most biofuels used today cause more GHG emissions than fossil fuels if the environmental impact of producing them - the razing of ecosystems - is taken into account.
As Timothy Searchinger, a professor at Princeton University and one of the study's authors, explained to the International Herald Tribune's Elisabeth Rosenthal: "Previously, there's been an accounting error: Land use change has been left out of prior analysis." This discrepancy, he alleges, had led previous studies to greatly underestimate the environmental damage caused by biofuel production.Joe Fargione, a regional scientist for The Natural Conservancy and the author of the second study, said that the destruction of grassland, rainforests, peatlands or savannas in countries like Brazil and the U.S. released 17-420 times more carbon dioxide emissions than the fuels they replace.
Despite the imposition of new regulations by the EU and other states aimed at curtailing the amount of biofuels imported from countries which destroy land to produce crops, Searchinger claims that their purchase - whether directly or indirectly - would still lead to the razing of natural ecosystems, simply as a result of higher demand and rising prices.
In light of similar concerns being raised about both the U.S.'s and the EU's new energy directives, which seek to boost biofuel usage for transport to 15% by 2022 and 5.75% by the end of 2008, respectively, some are questioning the climate change-fighting benefits these "green" fuels offer. Officials at the UN and various interest groups, including Washington's Renewable Fuels Association, tried to tamp down fears raised by these studies, arguing that biofuels should be part of any climate change agenda.
In an extended interview, Fargione explains what he sees as the role for biofuels in a climate change strategy:
"There is a role for biofuels. Although there is no silver bullet to solve climate change, there are many silver BBs.
Biofuels can be a silver BB if produced without requiring additional land to be converted from native habitats to agriculture. For example, biofuels can be made from waste from agriculture and forests, and from native grasses and woody biomass grown on marginal lands unsuitable for crop production.
We not only have to consider how we produce biomass, but how we convert it to energy. Producing liquid transportation fuels may not be the most efficient way to use the energy contained in biomass.
Multiple technologies currently exist that can economically convert biomass for heat, cooling and electricity. To make the best use of biomass from a climate change standpoint, we should consider these uses, not just producing liquid transportation fuel."
Via ::The Nature Conservancy: The True Cost of Biofuels (news website)