Tuesday, April 08, 2008

TIME - BioFuels Just a Big Myth

Last week TIME magazine had an article that has really created a buzz in the countryside. The article that argued that biofuels have accelerated the deforestation pace in many third world countries as they have to compensate for the increasing use of corn for biofuels production:

But several new studies show the biofuel boom is doing exactly the opposite of what its proponents intended: it's dramatically accelerating global warming, imperiling the planet in the name of saving it. Corn ethanol, always environmentally suspect, turns out to be environmentally disastrous. Even cellulosic ethanol made from switchgrass, which has been promoted by eco-activists and eco-investors as well as by President Bush as the fuel of the future, looks less green than oil-derived gasoline.

Meanwhile, by diverting grain and oilseed crops from dinner plates to fuel tanks, biofuels are jacking up world food prices and endangering the hungry. The grain it takes to fill an SUV tank with ethanol could feed a person for a year. Harvests are being plucked to fuel our cars instead of ourselves. The U.N.'s World Food Program says it needs $500 million in additional funding and supplies, calling the rising costs for food nothing less than a global emergency. Soaring corn prices have sparked tortilla riots in Mexico City, and skyrocketing flour prices have destabilized Pakistan, which wasn't exactly tranquil when flour was affordable.
But to set the record straight, former Illinois Congressman Tom Ewing who is currently a member of the 25 x 25 group responded with a letter to TIME:

Members of our alliance share the author's anxiety for the continued health of the Amazon rain forest and other "carbon sinks" that nature has provided around the globe. As champions of many forms of land-based renewable energy (biomass, wind energy, solar power, geothermal energy and hydropower, in addition to biofuels), we agree that environmentally sensitive lands should not be exploited in pursuit of renewable fuels.


Unfortunately, the story's message of concern is undermined by misinformation about biofuels and an over-simplified analysis of complex systems. The implication that biofuel production is responsible for the destruction of the Amazon rain forest ignores the reality that ever increasing worldwide demand for food and fiber is the primary cause of land use change in this and other regions. Simply eliminating biofuels will not stop land use changes from occurring, and in countries like Haiti that have already lost their forests, biofuels could help reestablish forests and offer more affordable and sustainable energy options. Similarly, information in the story about a recent study, which claims land-use changes brought about by increased biofuel production are producing more greenhouse gas emissions (Searchinger et al.), only tells half the story. What is missing is that Searchinger's methodologies have been widely questioned by respected biofuel life-cycle analysis researchers such as Michael Wang, with the Center for Transportation Research at the Argonne National Laboratory, who counter that Searchinger et al. used outdated, if not incorrect, data to reach their conclusions.

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