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Biofuels worsen global warming
February 10, 2008 1:50 PM   Subscribe

Biofuels worsen global warming, according to two studies published in Science last week. Current US biofuel policies would double carbon emissions over the gasoline alternative. More details: ScienceExpress fulltext pdf of study #1, powerpoint summary of study #1, abstract of study #2, summary of both, policy recommendations pdf (via: 1, 2).

Here's some context I needed to understand the US study: annually, the US produces ~5 billion gallons of ethanol and uses ~140 billion gallons of gasoline = 145 billion gallons total (sources). US law now calls for 36 billion gallons of biofuel production by 2022. The projections are based on increasing biofuel production to 31 billion gallons by 2015 (or the equivalent of the entire US grain crop from 2004).
posted by salvia (45 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
Who knew??
posted by mr. strange at 2:01 PM on February 10, 2008


These studies focus on the idea of "Converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands to produce food-based biofuels". That is, that there the carbon uptake is lost when you burn down a rainforest to make biofuel, not from just using biofuels itself or growing corn to produce biofuel.
posted by destro at 2:01 PM on February 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Well shit, time to go buy a Hummer, cuz it appears as though we're thoroughly fucked any which way.
posted by baphomet at 2:03 PM on February 10, 2008


This just in. Big Ag and multinational corporations do not have your best interests at heart.
posted by nax at 2:04 PM on February 10, 2008


There's never going to be a single product or energy source that solves our pollution problem. Unfortunately this is not a top-down problem. There needs to be solutions along the entire chain of energy consumption and usage that lowers our emissions.

Carbon emissions needs to be taken as an inherent part of our modern lives. There won't ever be market pressure to reduce carbon emissions, it will always be cheaper to pollute than it is to clean. Individuals need to be religious in their devotion to environmentalism. We've done a really, really good job making littering a strong social stigma ... it is just a matter of time that people begin to treat pollution in a similar way. This is an emotional appeal, not a rational one.
posted by geoff. at 2:07 PM on February 10, 2008


I think there's been a healthy sized group of people (me included) who have considered biofuels as a bad idea from the start. It works in the case of a handful of people using used frying oil; on a large scale, though, it causes way too much damage to both the environment (because we end up with a net negative carbon effect) and the economy (as is evidenced by farmer burning crops overseas and the rising costs of food).

Ethanol made from corn in particular is one of the most socially irresponsible things we could do.
posted by spiderskull at 2:08 PM on February 10, 2008


BTW by emotional I mean people should treat environmentalism much like the existence of religion or God ... one that doesn't make sense but fulfills a need nonetheless.
posted by geoff. at 2:09 PM on February 10, 2008


Individuals need to be religious in their devotion to environmentalism. We've done a really, really good job making littering a strong social stigma ... it is just a matter of time that people begin to treat pollution in a similar way. This is an emotional appeal, not a rational one.

That's a very good point, geoff. Once we can get rid of the stigmas surrounding EVs (and companies like Tesla and Wrightspeed are working on that), then we can make some progress. This idea of having millions of small powerplants on wheels is inefficient, and by consolidating the source of energy, it's a hell of a lot easier to manage carbon outputs.

I wonder, though, in the ideal situation of plug-in hybrid and EV proliferation, how much people would adjust their habits and drive more. That is, if we reduce the cost of transportation both in dollars and carbons, we'd enable more transportation and may even end up with the same carbon footprint.
posted by spiderskull at 2:15 PM on February 10, 2008


Of course converting food producing land into energy producing land is a bad idea, critics have known this for years.

The tech we should really be throwing billions at is Algae bio-fuels.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algae_fuel
posted by parallax7d at 2:18 PM on February 10, 2008 [2 favorites]


Individuals need to be religious in their devotion to environmentalism.

Unfortunately, you cannot possibly make a difference by using as little oil as possible. Not even if you convince a million people to do the same.

Here's why: If you (or a million people) start using less oil e.g. by driving a bicycle to work, demand for oil will drop and therefore prices will go down. Eventually they will be so low that some fat-assed American will decide that they are still low enough to buy another fat-assed SUV. Which means that the same amount of oil will be used after all, no matter how big your sacrifice.

This also works on a larger scale, meaning that most policies that countries try to implement in order to curb the use of oil will be without any measurable effect on a global scale.
posted by sour cream at 2:35 PM on February 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


soure cream: Yeah, but you'd sure save loads of money cycling to work.
posted by mr. strange at 2:39 PM on February 10, 2008


There's never going to be a single product or energy source that solves our pollution problem.

I'm not sure what actually validates statements like these, but I'd just like to mention that saying it doesn't make it true.

Carbon emissions needs to be taken as an inherent part of our modern lives. There won't ever be market pressure to reduce carbon emissions, it will always be cheaper to pollute than it is to clean. Individuals need to be religious in their devotion to environmentalism.

And, hand in hand with my comment above, fatalist rhetoric that automatically concedes the point is why academia and venture cap isn't getting the money it needs to find a viable alternative. The moment people realize that we MUST do something is the moment we stop crying "terra! terra!" and start crying "fuel independence!" Although I agree with you that it must be a devotion that leads to this kind of movement.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 2:39 PM on February 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


perhaps the post title would be more accurate if it said Some biofuels May worsen global warming.
posted by wilful at 2:40 PM on February 10, 2008 [4 favorites]


I don't understand the assumption that there *is* a viable alternative. The only conclusion someone who isn't a religious environmentalist can reach, by looking at the available economic projections for India and China as well as the West, is that we're just not going to be able to do enough to prevent the catastrophic destruction of the planet. Clapping your hands over your ears and going "LALALALA I CAN'T HEAR YOU! SCIENCE SCIENCE SCIENCE!" isn't going to save Bangladesh or Amsterdam or Miami. The most sensible course of action is thinking up ways to exist and survive post-environmental collapse: data preservation, low-cost practical solutions for shelter, clothing, and food, community organization.
posted by nasreddin at 2:54 PM on February 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


perhaps the post title would be more accurate if it said Some biofuels May worsen global warming.

No kidding. I mean, obviously if you ran an ethanol farm on plain gasoline, it would make global warming worse. But you don't need to. This type of thing makes it seem as though it's hopeless, whereas as long as the farm was run using sustainable energy itself, it would be fine.

For example, you could use electrically powered tractors to harvest corn, and throw up a bunch of windmills to recharge them.

You can also use the left-over bits from the corn after you've extracted the ethanol as fertilizer.

Etc. It would be more informative if the studies looked at optimal efficiency rather then current efficiency
posted by delmoi at 3:06 PM on February 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Ask Metafilter
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:09 PM on February 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


There's never going to be a single product or energy source that solves our pollution problem

who started this stupid idea? a single solution is possible of course. implementing hundreds of different ideas that don't work isn't going to get us anywhere.

And why is overpopulation so often left out of this debate
posted by bhnyc at 3:20 PM on February 10, 2008


by looking at the available economic projections for India and China as well as the West, is that we're just not going to be able to do enough to prevent the catastrophic destruction of the planet.>

::rolls eyes::

Right, well forgive me if I haven't already doomed myself and this planet to a fate of complete environmental destruction. Silly me for believing that the apocalypse isn't near, yet.

Many projections of oil consumption fail to take into account the laws of supply and demand. Whereas many Americans and Europeans could probably swallow $8-10/gallon gasoline (economies, not individual consumers), the Chinese and Indians are not so lucky. Right now, oil is relatively cheap. At $200-300/barrel, India and China's growth, and therefore consumption, would significantly decrease. By how much? I don't know. I've never seen a study that has taken those kinds of prices into account. But don't kid yourself. Oil prices won't stay where they are if demand keeps increasing the way it has over the past 3-5 years. And ridiculously high oil prices will be one of the economic motivators to find alternatives.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 3:21 PM on February 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


Sorry, I meant to say, "consumption, and therefore growth..."
posted by SeizeTheDay at 3:22 PM on February 10, 2008


THERE....THERE'S NO WAY TO STOP THEM. MY. GOD. THEY'RE EVERYWHERE.
posted by scabrous at 3:24 PM on February 10, 2008


SeizeTheDay, $10/gal. gasoline would utterly tank the US economy. There are a lot of people who couldn't even commute to work and make a profit. It would be a depression like we have never seen.
posted by sonic meat machine at 3:27 PM on February 10, 2008


Again, not ALL biofuel will lead to increases GHG emission. Biofuel grown in place of crops, or on good arable, will increase emissions. But, some ways of producing biodiesel may still have a role to play in alleviating GHG emissions, in particular: algal biodiesel and waste-stream biodiesel.

I'm not terribly surprised by the results of these studies. To me, they just confirm that the way we are trying to address climate change is wrong headed: we need to reduce energy use in addition to finding lower and no GHG energy sources. We really need to redefine our relation to energy; rather than just switching from one source to the next, we must see the value in efficiency.
posted by HighTechUnderpants at 3:33 PM on February 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


To me, the revelation of all this was the scale of the problem. I mean, in theory, I knew there was a problem. But I didn't realize that replacing even a quarter of US gasoline usage would require basically all the corn produced here. Should've done the math sooner...

These studies focus on the idea of "Converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands to produce food-based biofuels". That is, that there the carbon uptake is lost when you burn down a rainforest to make biofuel, not from just using biofuels itself or growing corn to produce biofuel.

destro, agreed. And then it says that meeting current US targets for biofuel production will cause this land conversion. For two reasons: using almost all US cropland for fuel will at minimum reduce US crop exports (so other countries will need to increase crop production), and because crop prices will go up, creating economic incentives to grow more crops.

(delmoi, what article were you reading? I didn't see anything about tractors.)

perhaps the post title would be more accurate if it said Some biofuels May worsen global warming.

wilful, I'm not sure exactly what distinctions you're pointing to, but to clarify, I was using "biofuels" as shorthand for "producing biofuels to the extent now required by US law" and "worsen global warming" as shorthand for "would double climate emissions over the alternative, according to a modeling effort published last week in Science."

(And sorry for my US-centric take here; I couldn't find a full-text of the more international paper online, so I know less about that study's conclusions.)
posted by salvia at 3:33 PM on February 10, 2008


Surprise, and ethanol is helping drive up the cost of food.
posted by 517 at 3:43 PM on February 10, 2008



Many projections of oil consumption fail to take into account the laws of supply and demand. Whereas many Americans and Europeans could probably swallow $8-10/gallon gasoline (economies, not individual consumers), the Chinese and Indians are not so lucky. Right now, oil is relatively cheap. At $200-300/barrel, India and China's growth, and therefore consumption, would significantly decrease. By how much? I don't know. I've never seen a study that has taken those kinds of prices into account. But don't kid yourself. Oil prices won't stay where they are if demand keeps increasing the way it has over the past 3-5 years. And ridiculously high oil prices will be one of the economic motivators to find alternatives.


Besides what sonic meat machine has already mentioned, it's not just about oil. See, for example, this Mother Jones article (I think there was a MeFi post):
China has also become a ravenous consumer. Its appetite for raw materials drives up international commodity prices and shipping rates while its middle class, projected to jump from fewer than 100 million people now to 700 million by 2020, is learning the gratifications of consumerism. China is by a wide margin the leading importer of a cornucopia of commodities, including iron ore, steel, copper, tin, zinc, aluminum, and nickel. It is the world's biggest consumer of coal, refrigerators, grain, cell phones, fertilizer, and television sets. It not only leads the world in coal consumption, with 2.5 billion tons in 2006, but uses more than the next three highest-ranked nations—the United States, Russia, and India—combined. China uses half the world's steel and concrete and will probably construct half the world's new buildings over the next decade. So omnivorous is the Chinese appetite for imports that when the country ran short of scrap metal in early 2004, manhole covers disappeared from cities all over the world—Chicago lost 150 in a month.
Do you really think that, with the environment as fragile as it already is, 600 million middle class Chinese in twelve years consuming more resources than any other country on the planet won't be enough to tip it into the irretrievable abyss (if we're not there already)? The magic bullet alternatives won't even be out of the prototype stage yet by that point, much less in sufficient use to replace our key polluting commodities. Scream "alarmist" all you want, but it's pretty clear to me.
posted by nasreddin at 4:29 PM on February 10, 2008 [1 favorite]


We've done a really, really good job making littering a strong social stigma ... it is just a matter of time that people begin to treat pollution in a similar way.

Actually, if littering in the sense of 'having a litter of children' could be stigmatized too, we'd maybe have a fart's chance in a windstorm of reversing environmental trends. Otherwise, well, let's hope the smart people get fusion power generation figured out soon.

nasreddin is right about China, and let me tell you, living in Korea, right next door, you never forget it. The huang-sa (yellow dust), laden with toxic heavy metal particles, that carpets Korea every spring, carried by the winds from the expanding Gobi desert, is only one of the Bad Things we're already experiencing firsthand.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:05 PM on February 10, 2008


China is by a wide margin the leading importer of a cornucopia of commodities, including iron ore, steel, copper, tin, zinc, aluminum, and nickel.

Maybe technically true, and this doesn't change the larger point, but when you get your economics from Mother Jones, the nuances-- the fact that China is a net importer of iron ore, but a net exporter of steel (where all those laterites go), and that China is on net an exporter of aluminum-- tend to disappear and you really don't know anything more than you did before you read the article.
posted by Kwantsar at 5:09 PM on February 10, 2008


And anyway, a carbon tax is by far the best way to solve the majority of these problems and their relatives. I really wonder how poorly the implementation of a carbon policy (in the US) will go.
posted by Kwantsar at 5:14 PM on February 10, 2008 [2 favorites]


What if we could engineer a virus that would turn a large fraction of the population into zombies?
posted by cytherea at 5:18 PM on February 10, 2008


Zombies that ate toxic waste and pooped gumdrops!
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:29 PM on February 10, 2008 [2 favorites]


Or zombies that eat carbon and poop oxygen! Oh wait, those are called trees!
posted by salvia at 5:32 PM on February 10, 2008 [5 favorites]


Maybe technically true, and this doesn't change the larger point, but when you get your economics from Mother Jones, the nuances-- the fact that China is a net importer of iron ore, but a net exporter of steel (where all those laterites go), and that China is on net an exporter of aluminum-- tend to disappear and you really don't know anything more than you did before you read the article.

And anyway, a carbon tax is by far the best way to solve the majority of these problems and their relatives. I really wonder how poorly the implementation of a carbon policy (in the US) will go.


I don't read Mother Jones, but those statistics sound right to me. Do you have another source? In any case, by 2020 China will certainly be outconsuming the US, given the population disparity.

A carbon tax where in the US? That creates a perverse incentive--to move the polluting industries to the developing world on an even larger scale. If you're suggesting a carbon tax in China...well, that and 2 kwai'll get you a sawdust egg roll.
posted by nasreddin at 5:33 PM on February 10, 2008


This is not a new revelation, just a completed summary of the data to back up what a lot of scientists have been saying for awhile. The problem is that biofuel from corn has been presented as almost a panacea over the past few years, when really it's anything but. And as a result the US has been preparing itself for massive corn production, despite warnings from scientists early on that there would be large environmental costs to producing so much biofuel from corn using the current production methods. This new study spells out the variables involved in more detail.

Here's the Cliff's Notes version:

Science: "Biofuel from corn is a promising avenue to investigate for solving our problem."

Policymakers say "Sweet, we love corn. Let's plant a whole bunch! Hey constituents, we're getting you more subsidies for corn! Look environmentalists, we're going 'green'! Everyone loves us. We're awesome."

Science: "Whoa, hold on. You do realize growing corn has environmental costs, right? Corn can't solve this huge problem. That legislation you proposed will be bad news for important stuff like food prices and crop rotation. Biofuel is just one approach you should take. We never said you should go bonkers with the corn. And we think stuff like hay might work better than corn anyway."

Policymakers: "La la la corn corn corn $ $ $ electability!"

Science: "Ok look, we did a study to show you just how much the corn rush is a bad idea."

Policymakers: "OMG."

NYT: "Biofuels threaten global warming!"

Alarmists: "All biofuels are bad! All solutions must be 100% good to be acceptable."

Defeatists: "We're all fucked no matter what we do! I'm buying a Hummer for now and a fallout shelter for later."

Anti-environmentalists: "See, all you hippies were daydreaming again. It doesn't matter what we do because China will do much worse. Best to live in the now, the free market will save us. Nothing is 'green' except cash."
posted by Tehanu at 5:36 PM on February 10, 2008 [5 favorites]


Jeez, Tehanu, see the world in black and white much? Not everything is about LOLREPUGNICANSAMIRITE.
posted by nasreddin at 5:43 PM on February 10, 2008


I don't read Mother Jones, but those statistics sound right to me. Do you have another source?

I'm not really disputing them-- China is the biggest importer of Aluminum, but it is also the biggest exporter, and a net exporter. Here's one cite. But you're smart enough to look it up yourself. Here's a cite for China being a net exporter of steel, despite importing all of that iron ore. The point of all of this being that the MJ story is a bit facile. The world's a complicated place.

A carbon tax where in the US? That creates a perverse incentive--to move the polluting industries to the developing world on an even larger scale.


Not really. The authorities would simply levy a duty on the energy content of the imported good.

If you're suggesting a carbon tax in China...well, that and 2 kwai'll get you a sawdust egg roll.

Probably so, but have you seen the price of seaborne steam coal? The market is about to give China a lesson on the benefits of energy efficiency. Can't say for how long, but for now, thermal energy is getting quite dear.
posted by Kwantsar at 6:06 PM on February 10, 2008


Uhh...there's a big ginormous difference between releasing the carbon sequestered millions of years ago and releasing the same carbon that would be released in the normal breakdown of said plant matter.
posted by TomMelee at 6:12 PM on February 10, 2008


We need to invest more in perpetual motion machines.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:34 PM on February 10, 2008


Thanks for the cites, Kwantsar.

Probably so, but have you seen the price of seaborne steam coal? The market is about to give China a lesson on the benefits of energy efficiency. Can't say for how long, but for now, thermal energy is getting quite dear.


Yeah, I imagine it'll happen, and they'll put in efficiency-promoting devices. But I'm not really convinced that market incentives like carbon taxes or even rising prices will help save the planet, though they'll probably delay the inevitable by a few years. Reasoning like that seems to assume a particularly strange version of the anthropic principle--that there are built-in systemic safeguards that will allow us to pull ourselves back just in the nick of time. If China does go in hardcore for environmental regulation, I'm not sure much will change, since the rule of law there is weak where the powerful are concerned--much easier to fudge the numbers that you send to the environmental protection ministry than actually to implement change. (For instance, bribery and corruption have a huge built-in market incentive to eliminate them, yet there's been little headway on that front for many decades in China).

Another problem is that at some point (especially in the Chinese case) rising prices stop being market incentives and start being arguments in favor of resource warfare. If that starts happening (as people are saying will soon happen with water) then all hell will break loose.

It's anyone's guess what will happen to the environment over the next 50 years, but I look at the numbers and it's hard to get an outcome favorable to humans without stacking the deck. People are naturally optimists, of course, and stacking the deck is what we do; but it might be better to turn pessimist when so much is at stake.
posted by nasreddin at 6:50 PM on February 10, 2008


Jeez, Tehanu, see the world in black and white much? Not everything is about LOLREPUGNICANSAMIRITE.

Oh, I don't know. It seemed to me Tehanu insulted the entire political spectrum. (Including both Democratic presidential candidates.)
posted by salvia at 6:55 PM on February 10, 2008


I don't know if the modeling here is as accurate as they depict given the reserve production land in the west which will be more economical than third world swamp/rainforest conversion.

A lesson from this is that reducing the demand for corn is key. The answer is to quit eating meat. Posters above are correct in that the supply/demand/price equilibrium shifts when demand for {energy|corn} goes down, and the full loss is not realized. They are incorrect to say though that none or a small part of the decreased demand is realized in decreased production. If you want proof, think about it backwards. When demand goes up, production sure as hell does too; that's the point of these articles. The exact amount depends on where you are on the relevant curves, and I'd love if an economist chimed in with some empirical evidence on the response of these markets to temporary changes in demand.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 7:05 PM on February 10, 2008


Check out the policy brief for some comments on the reserve land.
posted by salvia at 7:26 PM on February 10, 2008


Jeez, Tehanu, see the world in black and white much? Not everything is about LOLREPUGNICANSAMIRITE.

I don't care which side of the aisle people sit on, they've all been playing a dangerous shell game that risks long-term sustainability for their own short-term gains. Black and white vision is exactly what I'm criticizing: the idea that something is either a magic bullet or a death sentence, "green" or "dirty," a solution or a problem. It's an idea that wins votes and funding but solves nothing because everything has pros and cons. We will not reduce carbon emissions with one action, not even on a national level, yet ethanol from corn was promoted as nearly that. It was irresponsible.
posted by Tehanu at 7:40 PM on February 10, 2008


geoff: There's never going to be a single product or energy source that solves our pollution problem

bhnyc: who started this stupid idea?

I think it comes from the fact that some renewable energy technologies don't have the qualities that could provide 100% firm electricity supply, opponents of RETs argue that this will/should prevent their use, supporters point out that no single tech will provide the solution. With the current set of RETs and their relative levels of technological maturity it currently doesn't look like we will see a single tech solution, but you're right that this doesn't mean there might not be a single solution in the future.
posted by biffa at 2:01 AM on February 11, 2008


I love the mistaken idea that anything we do today affects global change...today. Or next week, or next year, or next decade. Any human-driven climate changes we're seeing today are a result of our actions through the industrial revolution, wars, and gas-spewing garbage of the 60's and 70's.

That's not to say that there aren't *more* total emissions today, it's to say that what's happening today isn't because of policy changes in the last 5 years.
posted by TomMelee at 6:42 AM on February 11, 2008


Thanks for the heads up salvia. That's fairly devastating. The positive out of all of this is that it makes a major case for land use as a lynchpin of climate policy.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 4:58 PM on February 11, 2008


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