February 9, 2008

Biofuels are even worse

Trade-offs, trade-offs.

I keep saying it, and it keeps being true.

You know my view from many previous ramblings: there is no such thing as a fungible solution to any of our environmental *problems*, or *climate change* (of the alleged anthropomorphic kind), or energy sources.

No surprise to me to read that the latest research indicates that many anticipated biofuels will actually exacerbate global warming.

"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 [last week] have concluded.

The benefits of biofuels have come under increasing attack in recent months, as scientists took a closer look at the global environmental cost of their production. These latest studies, published in the prestigious journal Science, are likely to add to the controversy.

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.

Together the two studies offer sweeping conclusions: It does not matter if it is rain forest or scrubland that is cleared, the greenhouse gas contribution is significant. More important, they discovered that, taken globally, the production of almost all biofuels resulted, directly or indirectly, intentionally or not, in new lands being cleared, either for food or fuel.

“When you take this into account, most of the biofuel that people are using or planning to use would probably increase greenhouse gasses substantially,” said Timothy Searchinger, lead author of one of the studies and a researcher in environment and economics at Princeton University. “Previously there’s been an accounting error: land use change has been left out of prior analysis.”

The clearance 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.”

But even with such restrictions in place, Dr. Searchinger’s study shows, the purchase of biofuels in Europe and the United States leads indirectly to the destruction of natural habitats far afield.

Increasingly, that elsewhere, Dr. Fargione said, is Brazil, on land that was previously forest or savanna. “Brazilian farmers are planting more of the world’s soybeans — and they’re deforesting the Amazon to do it,” he said.

International environmental groups, including the United Nations, responded cautiously to the studies, saying that biofuels could still be useful. “We don’t want a total public backlash that would prevent us from getting the potential benefits.”

Right, particularly if there are none. Public backlashes should be saved for, ummm, important stuff, like, err, arhh, the stuffing of fluffy dolphins.

"Dr. Searchinger said the only possible exception he could see for now was sugar cane grown in Brazil, which take relatively little energy to grow and is readily refined into fuel. He added that governments should quickly turn their attention to developing biofuels that did not require cropping, such as those from agricultural waste products.

The comparison with fossil fuels is going to be adverse for virtually all biofuels on cropland.”

Of course, "industry groups, like the Renewable Fuels Association, immediately attacked the new studies as “simplistic,” failing “to put the issue into context.”

I'd call the new studies "realistic" and long overdue.

[Declaration of bias: you know how much I love it when scientists agree with me.]

New York Times
- Biofuels deemed a greenhouse threat ...


  1. Anonymous9:25 PM

    Good post Caz.
    You are a clever girl.
    Why else do ya think I have been reading your blog now, everyday for the past few years.

    That, and the fact that invariably, you always make me smile!

    What's your opinion on biofuels developed from agricultural waste products? Is it a viable alternative?

  2. Alas not Kathy. It can be used, and that's probably fine to do, in a very limited range of things (eg, on farms), but it won't actually make a difference, and nothing comes within a coo-ee of the energy density of oil, not the sun, not the wind, not water waves from the ocean, and not crop waste.

    Let's look at what would be needed - deliberately grown crops, rather than waste:

    To replace the loss of oil with bio crops we would need to devote about 26,650 sq Kilometers of prime farming soil per day or 9,750,000 sq K per year of prime farm land, more if the climate or soil was not very good. That doesn't include the considerable amount of energy that goes into farming 9.75 million SQ Kilometers needs to be added on to the 9.75 million sq K this just replaces the lost oil energy and it requires additional energy to convert this bio crop to useful energy so in reality it would have to be much more to replace 79 million barrels of oil per day.

    In the next 25 years it's projected that we'll use 1.5 trillion barrels of oil. We don't have enough land to grow enough crops to create that much biofuel, even if we could figure out how to convert and store the energy efficiently.

    Oil is the most dense source of energy going. Brewing for hundreds of thousands of years, ditto natural gas and coal. Hundreds of thousands of years of stored energy. Hence the superior energy density.

    Economically, and practically, nothing can beat them, nothing.

    As far as alternative energies go, you not only need energy density, you need to capture and store the energy. Storage in itself uses energy too. There has been serious grunt put into this very issue from all over the world for a long time. And there has been serious improvement in storage ability, we have increased storage capacity by 750% in the last 20 years. However reality rears its ugly head, we have gone from being able to store 40Wh/Litre to storing 300Wh/Litre. Those are volumetric energy density figures, the gravimetric energy density figures are not as good, at about 680%.

    How does that compare to old fashioned petrol? Well, oil clocks in at around 9700Wh/Litre, 32 times higher.

    We can capture sunshine and biofuels until the cows come home, figure out efficient ways to store the energy, but the energy density is still going to be like trying to use lots of electric toothbrushes to power factories and provide the whole country with basic lighting.

    Human ingenuity can not create reality nor does wishful thinking about possibilities solve anything. We are trapped by basic chemistry, physics and maths.

    All the same, I still back human ingenuity and adaptability. We will adapt, we will innovate. No idea how, but it won't be with poor energy density alternatives, which are, at best, soothing novelties.

  3. Ooops, forgot: uranium, U235 has about 4,500 times the Watt hours/litre as oil.

    Uranium is the ultimate in energy density.

    Compare that to the pitiful storage and power of alternative fuels.

    Still, the age of oil is only recent, 100 years or so (?), not long, in any case.

    We need to come up with something much better than the currently touted "green" saviors if we are to continue the golden age, otherwise the way we live now will be nothing but an aberration, not because of global warming, but because we lose the energy sources that we took to like ducks to water, and continue to hold so dear.

    Warming of the planet isn't a bad thing, it will bring prosperity to more people. We can adapt to balmy weather. An ice age, on the other hand, would kill most of us in no time at all, and access to energy sources would be, well, a little bit dire.