Large areas of land could easily be deforested with a push towards cellulosic biofuels. Photo: Ben Sutherland
With the reputation of first generation biofuels like corn ethanol darkly tarnished, the move is on to develop second-generation biofuels that don't have the negative environmental impacts: High water requirements, competition with food crops, negative land-use changes, et cetera. The Obama administration has made promotion of these biofuels a priority. But a new piece in Conservation, reprinted in The Guardian says that cellulosic biofuels may ultimately be no better than first generation biofuels: Tropical Forests Could Be Hit Hard
Author David Malakoff describes the just-emerging discussion of the impact of cellulosic biofuels as "all too familiar" and goes on to cite an MIT study which shows why:
After assuming that cellulosic fuels provide at least 10 percent of the world's energy supply, the study concludes that "large tracts of natural forests, woodlands, and grasslands will be converted to either food or cellulosic biofuels production." By 2050, the land devoted to cellulosic crops mushrooms to about 11 percent of the earth's total (between 13.9 and 14.8 million square kilometers). Many areas would lose from 20 to 70 percent of their natural habitats, with tropical and semitropical ecosystems able to produce high levels of biomass the hardest hit. On the lengthy danger list: biodiversity "hotspots" in Mesoamerica, the cerrado of Brazil, Guinea/West Africa, Madagascar, Indo-Burma, and the cluster of Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
In terms of carbon emissions from land-use changes, the same MIT study says that a shift towards cellulosic biofuels would add carbon to the atmosphere, and that it would take 50 years of using these fuels to offset this.
Then there is the issue of biodiversity: For example, though prairie plots of switchgrass have more biodiversity than corn fields, non-cultivated prairie has higher biodiversity. And in some places, complicating matters, switchgrass can become invasive.
Solution to BioEnergy Conundrum: Use Less of Them
Malakoff concludes that the solution to the "bioenergy conundrum" of making biofuels (or any fuels) more environmentally friendly may be simply using them in smaller quantities. And I'd have to agree with him. By not addressing energy demand as aggressively as supply (even more aggressively...) we are shooting ourselves in the foot.
Greater energy efficiency in our products, lifestyle choices which are less energy-intense, structural changes in our cities, towns and transportation, plus simply embracing low-energy lifestyles (regardless if that energy comes from clean or polluting energy sources) as the norm has to be the first line of attack in determining future energy policy and mitigating climate change.
via: The Guardian
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