So I have threatened you all with a post on biofuels for a while and I suppose it is time to actually give it to you. A quick look at the post title gives you a hint of my personal take on the topic, but a take unsupported by fact is a prejudice and I try not to be prejudiced so let me explain the basis for my opinion.
Before I go into details, I will point out once again that I am very much a pragmatist on many topics but am something of a sentimentalist with respect to preserving nature. Some people believe that “man was given dominion over nature”; I am not one of those people. I believe that nature has an inherent value and that the preservation of ecological diversity is a duty of humanity. A pragmatist would point out that some of our most important medical advances were based on compounds refined from ecological inputs but I would argue that even if we never got another drug from the rainforests, preserving their existence and genetic diversity is a duty humankind owes the planet. My initial education was in the field of ecology and I recognize that the preservation of habitat is one of the most important ways of protecting ecosystems and genetic diversity. So while I readily admit that on the surface biofuels sound promising “fuel that grows itself” “a great use for wood wastes” etc.. as I will describe herein, biofuels place too much stress on our environment for the gain they may provide in fighting climate change, their production pulls too many calories from the human food chain resulting in human misery and in many cases the productions of these biofuels actually exacerbates climate change.
The sad part is that in almost every case biofuels start out sounding like a good idea. The argument goes that biofuels made from waste biomass can give power without incurring an environmental cost and would be carbon neutral. The problem is that there is only so much waste biomass out there and power plants need a steady source of fuel. So in almost every case power producers need to rely not only on waste biomass but on virgin materials. As described in the linked Economist article, in Poland and Finland, wood meets more than 80% of renewable-energy demand and in Germany, wood makes up 38% of non-fossil fuel power consumption. So where is this wood coming from? As described in the web posting at FSC-Watch in the southern US, NGOs have shown that the biggest US pellet producer, Enviva, is sourcing a high proportion of wood from the clear cutting of bottomland hardwood forests – some of the most biodiverse temperate forests and freshwater ecosystems worldwide. As for Canada we export about 1.3 million tons of wood pellets, most of it from boreal forests, to Europe every year. As for being “carbon neutral”, boreal forests grow slowly and model simulations reported in the journal Climate Change indicate that harvest of a boreal forest will create a “biofuel carbon debt” that takes 190–340 years to repay. So boreal forest wood is carbon neutral as long as you wait 3 centuries or so. To put it in perspective, in order to provide power for the factories and electric cars in Europe, Canadian and US forests are being cut down, often at an unsustainable rate, resulting in the destruction of valuable habitat and loss of ecosystem diversity. What is most ironic is that the power used by Greenpeace in Europe to fight the “tar sand’s” theoretical destruction of boreal forests is provided by the cutting down and grinding up of actual Canadian boreal forests.
So we have now established that power from biomass is a case of good intentions gone awry let’s look at ethanol in fuel. So much has been written on the topic that I will only present some highlights here. In the US they have a requirement for ethanol in fuel. This has resulted in pulling corn (the biggest source of US ethanol) out of the food chain. Specifically, as recounted in Forbes, in 2000 over 90% of the U.S. corn crop went to feed people and livestock, many in undeveloped countries, with less than 5% used to produce ethanol. In 2013, however, 40% went to produce ethanol, 45% was used to feed livestock, and only 15% was used for food and beverage. Put another way, enough calories to feed 500 million people were pulled out of the human food chain to run our vehicles? Let me say that again so it sinks in, the ethanol the US burns in its cars each year would feed 500 million people. The same Forbes article points out that Brazil is clear-cutting almost a million acres of tropical forest per year to produce biofuel and shipping much of the fuel all the way to Europe. The net effect is about 50% more carbon emitted by using these biofuels than using petroleum fuels. As for the argument that the ethanol helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, a recent article in Science disputes that point. The article points out that corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20% savings in greenhouse gases, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years (so it will be carbon neutral in 167 years or so). The same article indicates that biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on U.S. corn lands, increase emissions by 50%. Another article in Science indicates that converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands to produce food crop–based biofuels in Brazil, Southeast Asia, and the United States creates a “biofuel carbon debt” by releasing 17 to 420 times more CO2 than the annual greenhouse gas reductions that these biofuels would provide by displacing fossil fuels.
I don’t have the space to discuss palm oil here but suffice it to point out that an article at Ensia reports that in 1985, Indonesia had less than 2,500 square miles of palm oil plantation, 20 years later, they covered 21,621 square miles, and by 2025 the Indonesian government projects plantations will cover at least 100,000 square miles. As reported in another article at Ensia a typical palm oil lagoon (a necessary component of the oil palm extraction process) has the same annual climate impact as driving 22,000 passenger cars. Since there are upwards of 1000 of these plantations in Indonesia we are talking the equivalent of 220,000 passenger cars a year, this is in addition to the palm oil plantation’s biofuel carbon debt of almost a century.
Going back to my introduction, I care about maintaining the integrity of our shared ecological inheritance. Biofuels, when used in the manner they have been used to date, are destroying that inheritance. Each year hundreds of thousands of hectares of forests in South and Central America and Southeast Asia are being clear-cut or burned in order to free up space for the production of these supposedly “carbon neutral” fuels. Yet these fuels can only be considered carbon neutral if you look at them in century timescales. Unfortunately, very few organisms live lives marked by century timescales. In order to survive climate change, ecosystems need resiliency and the destruction of habitat reduces resiliency and increases the likelihood of ecological collapse in degraded ecosystems. Moreover, moving the calories used in biofuels out of the human food-chain has resulted in food scarcity, increased costs for food and a reduction in the availability of inexpensive food available for food aid. Once again well-meaning, but scence-blind, activists need to be educated on what their slogans are actually accomplishing, because it is neither ecologically sustainable nor does it decrease Tyndall gas concentrations in our atmosphere.