There has been a lot of discussion over the last few years about biofuels and whether or not they are actually green, especially when produced on a large, global level.
A new study led by Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) senior scientist Jerry Melillo says no, they aren’t green (when it comes to climate change). However, there are still many important factors to keep in mind before claiming this is the end of a long and complicated discussion.
It is very difficult to examine the effects of a global biofuels program, because there are so many different types of biofuels and there are so many hard-to-measure indirect costs as well.
This new report attempted to delve into the indirect costs and give a more comprehensive view of what a global shift to biofuels as a main fuel source would mean for climate change.
The report found that “carbon loss stemming from the displacement of food crops and pastures for biofuels crops may be twice as much as the CO2 emissions from land dedicated to biofuels production.” This is a key finding on a topic largely ignored in previous studies.
Again, an important question is what biofuels crops the researchers were including in their study. Nonetheless, if global scale biofuels production does happen, it is safe to say that people will not choose the greenest biofuels everywhere in the world — (rather, they are likely to just choose the cheapest or easiest if there is not strong international regulation). Overall, however, which crops will be used is a hard question to answer.
Continuing on with the study findings, Melillo says, “Our analysis, which we think is the most comprehensive to date, shows that direct and indirect land-use changes associated with an aggressive global biofuels program have the potential to release large quantities of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.” The key indirect effects the scientists included were the emissions from croplands or pastures that would be displaced by biofuel production.
Another important finding from the study is that emissions from nitrous oxide (N2O) will be much more significant than they are now. They found that they would be even more important than carbon losses due to increased use of fertilizers (for biofuels crops).
In the end, although biofuels production is meant to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and climate change destruction, this research team found that global scale biofuels production would do much more harm than good. Of course, there are many sources of biofuels, and it’s important to realize that not all biofuels would have harmful effects, but this research is a clear yellow flag saying that if we are going to use biofuels we need to be careful to look at the indirect effects, more than just CO2 emissions, and the full life-cycle costs of all biofuels we intend (or, actually, expect) to use on a large scale.
In this analysis, Melillo and his colleagues found that greenhouse gas emissions resulting from indirect land use changes are “consequences that add to the climate-change problem rather than helping to solve it” and the biggest factor here is when biofuels production leads to deforestation.
As discussed in previous articles on this network (see below), the specific crops used is the most important factor in how green biofuels are, but how do we actually know which crops will be used? It is an important question (comments or attempted answers welcome below) and until it can be resolved, global scale biofuels production is still something to approach cautiously. The road to hell is paved with good intentions and so is the road to climate change as far as I can tell (i.e. cars and electricity were always meant to help us, but they’ve generated most of the greenhouse gas emissions in the world today).
The findings for this new report are published in Science Express.
Image Credit 1: skidrd via flickr under a Creative Commons license
Image Credit 2: Rainforest Action Network via flickr under a CC mmons license
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