Nearly all of the studies that have been used to promote the deployment of biofuels over the past two decades are flawed and need to be redone, according to the findings of a new meta-analysis of more than 100 research papers published on the subject over recent years.
The comprehensive study review — coming to us via the University of Michigan — noted that, in particular, the research purporting to show biofuels as being a “climate-friendly” alternative to conventional fuel use are heavily flawed.
The primary issue with these earlier studies is that “they fail to correctly account for the carbon dioxide absorbed from the atmosphere when corn, soybeans and sugarcane are grown to make biofuels,” according to study author John DeCicco, a research professor at U-M’s Energy Institute.
“Once the erroneous methodology is corrected, the results will likely show that policies used to promote biofuels — such as the US Renewable Fuel Standard and California’s Low-Carbon Fuel Standard — actually make matters worse when it comes to limiting net emissions of climate-warming carbon dioxide gas.”
“Almost all of the fields used to produce biofuels were already being used to produce crops for food, so there is no significant increase in the amount of carbon dioxide being removed from the atmosphere. Therefore, there’s no climate benefit,” DeCicco continued, whose advanced review of the topic is available here.
“The real challenge is to develop ways of removing carbon dioxide at faster rates and larger scales than is accomplished by established agricultural and forestry activities. By focusing more on increasing net carbon dioxide uptake, we can shape more effective climate policies that counterbalance emissions from the combustion of gasoline and other liquid fuels.”
In the new research paper, DeCicco analyzes the 4 primary approaches used (to date) to evaluate the carbon dioxide impacts of the various liquid transportation fuels — fossil fuel–based ones, plant-based biofuels, etc. The primary focus of the review is on carbon emissions — as this has been the primary selling point used by biofuel proponents over the last few decades.
The carbon footprint comparisons used in the vast majority of the earlier studies apparently “fail to properly reflect the dynamics of the terrestrial carbon cycle, miscounting carbon dioxide uptake during plant growth. That process occurs on all productive lands, whether or not the land is harvested for biofuel.”
Despite this, it was these analyses which were used to inform Congress before the creation of the US Renewable Fuel Standard. And also to inform the government of California before the creation of Low-Carbon Fuel Standard there.
Speaking on the topic of earlier studies challenging the accepted beliefs about carbon emissions associated with GMO biofuel agriculture, DeCicco stated: “These modeling errors help explain why the results of such studies have remained in dispute for so long. The disagreements have been especially sharp when comparing biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, to conventional fuels such as gasoline and diesel derived from petroleum.”
While this new work is certainly worth noting, criticisms of the methodologies used to support wide-scale biofuel use have been common since the beginning. I think that it’s pretty likely that most of those who have looked at the earlier research in any kind of depth noticed that it didn’t hold up to much scrutiny — especially with regard to using biofuels as a means of notably reducing carbon emissions.
If I had to venture a guess, though, I’d say that there are probably a fair number of people who are quite happy with what they’ve gotten out of that pie… reduced carbon emissions just don’t happen to be what they got out of it….
That said, I will note that I think that biofuels are very likely to have a place in the energy mix of many countries into the foreseeable future — just not a commercial one (except perhaps in aviation?). The interest that many militaries around the world have shown in biofuels is telling — this is, of course, because military use doesn’t have to be particularly economical (in the short term anyways) so long as other advantages seem to be there.
But I am getting an image in my head right now of the Germans pursuing their coal-to-liquids technology on a large scale back during WWII when oil supplies became scarce for them, and it not quite living up to their hopes. (Very expensive, even with slave/forced labor.)
South Africa does currently use the coal-to-liquids technology on a large-scale, though, for a variety of reasons — mostly owing to substantial government assistance and historically (very) cheap labor and land costs in the region. Even there, though, the liquid fuels produced are still quite expensive.
Image Credit: University of Michigan
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