Turning Food into Fuel is Worse than Burning Gasoline for the Planet

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Producing biofuels using food crops will release more global warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than producing and burning good old-fashioned gasoline, say new studies published today in Science.

http://sitemaker.umich.edu/section4group1/files/corncar.jpg

New Scientist sums the research up this way:

The new studies examine a different part of biofuel equation, and both suggest that the emissions associated with the crops may be even worse than that.

One analysis looks at land that is switched to biofuel crop production. Carbon will be released when forests are felled or bush cleared, and longer-term emissions created by dead roots decaying.

This creates what Joseph Fargione of The Nature Conservancy and colleagues call a "carbon debt". Emissions savings generated by the biofuels will help pay back this debt, but in some cases this can take centuries, suggests their analysis.

If 10,000 square metres of Brazilian rainforest is cleared to make way for soya beans – which are used to make biodiesel – over 700,000 kilograms of carbon dioxide is released.

The saving generated by the resulting biodiesel will not cancel that out for around 300 years, says Fargione. In the case of peat land rainforest in Indonesia, which is being cleared to grow palm oil, the debt will take over 400 years to repay, he says.

The carbon debts associated with US corn are measured in tens rather than hundreds of years. But the second study suggests that producing corn for fuel rather than food could have dramatic knock-on effects elsewhere.

Corn is used to feed cattle and demand for meat is high, so switching land to biofuel production is likely to prompt farmers in Brazil and elsewhere to clear forests and other lands to create new cropland to grow the missing corn.

When the carbon released by those clearances is taken into account, corn ethanol produces nearly twice as much carbon as petrol.

"The implications of these changes in land use have not been appreciated up until now," says Alex Farrell, at the University of California, Berkeley, US.

Farrell adds that biofuels could still prove useful in the fight against climate change, but using different approaches – such as focusing on crops for both food and fuel, or new technology for generating biofuels from food waste.

Of course, the studies may not pan out, but still the fact that Congress just mandated the production of 36 billion gallons of bio-ethanol for transport fuel by 2022 might give one pause to consider the virtues of letting government officials select our future energy technologies. Yes, I know, I know, the legislation mandates that about half of it must come from cellulosic sources, not food, but nobody knows how to do that yet economically.

Did someone say something about carbon taxes?

reason has long opposed mandating biofuels. And here, here and here, too.

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  1. Over the last ten years, grain reserves have plummented. At one time, the World had about 120 days of reserves. Now it is below 60 and still falling. Grain is needed for food.

    Usually, when this has happened in the past, higher prices bring in marginal producers, and supplies go up, but the response this time has thus far been sluggish. That’s another reason not to use food for fuel

  2. So wait you are telling me that government’s solution to a made up problem is going to cause that made up problem to be even worse.

    Why am i not surprised.

  3. Simple, just pass restrictions on the amount of land used for biofuel, then fine those who attempt to meet one restriction and fail to meet the other…

  4. Won’t someone please think of the rapidly eroding top soil?

  5. M16 –

    Don’t worry; they’ll make artificial topsoil from petroleum.

  6. Well, there’s also this.

  7. Did someone say something about carbon taxes?

    Thanks Ron. Many of my anthropogenig global warming thougts are there if anybody is interested.

    …the fact that Congress just mandated the production of 36 billion gallons of bio-ethanol for transport fuel by 2022 might give one pause to consider the virtues of letting government officials select our future energy technologies.

    But congresscritters have all of these newly minted lawyers on staff. Surely they know best about bio-energy production as it relates to CO2 emissions and the economy. Right?

    Right?

  8. The rainforest to soybean argument is contrived. No one would grow soybeans for fuel, they are not an oilseed.

    You would grow oil palms, which produces 5 ton/ha. This is equal to 15 tons of wood. If the forest is 500 ton/ha, it only takes 33 years to break even. You could use those 500 tons for energy too.

    Environmentalists demonize all practical solutions.

  9. How about killing two birds with one stone.

    Sugar people!

    We could have viable alternative fuels while at the same time helping to restore the economy of southern Louisianna.

    Go to San Paulo and fill up. You’ll see what I mean. Perhaps we should let Louisianna take Iowa’s place in the primaries. It would happen almost overnight.

  10. How about killing two birds with one stone.

    Sugar people!

    Sugar People? How are sugar people going to help? Maybe gingerbread men, but sugar people?

  11. BakedPenguin –
    Like all rational adults, I’m skeptical. Not dismissing it mind you, just realistically skeptical. If he can do it for $3/gal it’s a huge breakthrough.

  12. In less than a century, we’ve gone from competing with our draft animals to our SUVs for food.

  13. J sub D – Skepticism is understandable. It’ll be interesting to watch, though. Since the guy said he could basically have $2 / gal ethanol in a year or so, put-up-or-shut-up time will come rather quick for him.

    Myself, I love the idea of not enriching scum like the Saudis, Putin, Chavez, the Nigerian gov’t, etc. And it’s great that this solution (if it comes about) will be achieved through market means.

  14. Carbon will be released when forests are felled or bush cleared, and longer-term emissions created by dead roots decaying.

    Apropos of this, wasn’t there some study somewhere that said that the rainforests in South America produced more carbon than they absorbed, due to the massive amounts of decaying material offgassing CO2?

  15. I’ve made the libertarian argument for carbon taxes around here, maybe there’s also an argument for credits for things like doing no-till, etc.?

  16. All true, but it applies only to corn-based ethanol, NOT sugarcane-based ethanol, which is both environmentally sound and economically rational.

  17. Aaargh! Why didn’t the tell us this years ago before we convinced congress to hand over billions in subsidies to MegaAgriCorp?!?! Now we’re going to look silly after all those marches and protests and festivals and rock concerts and all that.

    If only scientists got it right the first time, then we could better know how to run your lives!

  18. Ken, Are you a global-tax-libertarian? that sounds like a pretty interesting argument you must have there…are the cosmo libs friends with the global-carbon-tax-libs?

    never mind, sorry for the sarcasm…since i missed the logic behind the proposal could I please have it?

  19. Apropos of this, wasn’t there some study somewhere that said that the rainforests in South America produced more carbon than they absorbed, due to the massive amounts of decaying material offgassing CO2?

    If they’re neither growing or shrinking, they are neutral. Large carbon sinks, but atmospherically neutral.

  20. Sugar people!

    We could have viable alternative fuels while at the same time helping to restore the economy of southern Louisianna.

    Except that it’s much less environmentally efficient to grow sugar in Louisiana or Florida than closer to the equator in the first place. That’s why we have all those stupid sugar quotas/ridiculous loan system using sugar as a collateral. At least the latest sugar cartel attempt appears to be failing. The Administration has been surprisingly solid on opposing it.

    Louisiana-grown sugar-based ethanol is going to be less efficient than Brazilian.

  21. All true, but it applies only to corn-based ethanol, NOT sugarcane-based ethanol, which is both environmentally sound and economically rational.

    Yeah, good luck with that. Corn interests are so entrenched in Washington that it will never happen.

  22. Gabe Harris –

    There are a number of global carbon tax libertarians. Adults know that free markets alone can’t solve everything. Read this and have at me.

  23. BakedPenguin,
    doesn’t matter how much ethanol we produce…our establishment leaders in both parties are still 100% behind giving the House of Saud 20 billion dollar aid and weapons packages regularly…so we will still be enriching scum over there as long as we have a McCain or a Hillary or a Obama.

  24. Gabe – if we don’t need oil, we don’t need the Saudis. I think there would be a qualitative and quantitative change in any aid packages they receive.

  25. “never mind, sorry for the sarcasm…since i missed the logic behind the proposal could I please have it?”

    Very briefly, it’s that if global warming really is a big problem, then the remedy is going to have a devastating impact on our economy, then we’re going to have to dramatically cut taxes on economic activity.

    It’s also that even if global waring is a bunch of hooey, taxing carbon is better than taxing economic activity anyway. Regardless of whether global warming is going to have an impact, good or bad, it’s better to tax carbon than it is to tax income or capital gains, etc.

    That’s the abbreviated version.

  26. You may have noticed the abbreviated version has bad spelling and grammar.

  27. “There are a number of global carbon tax libertarians. Adults know that free markets alone can’t solve everything.”

    I don’t know what the global carbon tax is, I was talking about this as a means to kill the income tax. I’d rather pay taxes on carbon than income.

    I’m looking for ways to pay less tax here in the United States–I’m not about to agree to pay more. …and I’m certainly not talking about paying tax to some other country or entity.

    It’s more like, what if we could make common cause with the environmentally minded out there and do away with the income tax? I’ve seen self-described progressives in this very forum say they’d agree to do away with the income tax if it meant a tax on carbon emissions significant enough to impact the problem.

    Why wouldn’t we take them up on that?

    I believe we’re already being taxed pretty close to the limit we’re willing to tolerate anyway–our politicians certainly aren’t holding back out of any sense of principle.

    So let ’em tax carbon. Good. …so long as they kill the income tax, the capital gains tax…

  28. Ken,

    I mentioned this in the carbon tax thread the other day.
    Okay, lets see we get a carbon tax to replace part of the income tax. A significant part, or it doesnt matter. It is revenue neutral (in year zero). Next year, I (or someone smarter than me) invents a device that leads to a drastic, say about 60%, reduction in carbon emissions. This may take a few years to reach, but eventually. Is the government just going to give up that revenue? I think not. It will be like the cigarette tax.

  29. This article reads like Reason has a vested interest in the oil industry.

    Anything Congress mandates happening by 2022 can just as easily be un-mandated.

  30. Eric Gisin acclaims “The rainforest to soybean argument is contrived. No one would grow soybeans for fuel, they are not an oilseed.”

    American producers of soybeans switch to corn because of the high price of corn. Shortage of soybeans causes prices to rise. Brazilian farmers cannot grow corn (subsidy is for U.S. farmers; different climate), so they grow soy.

    Food is fungible.

  31. What’s the problem? Smart people are making informed decisions. Just coerce everyone to change course and assume that the scientists will never be wrong again. It’s immoral not to act, don’t you know.

  32. Did someone say something about carbon taxes?

    I believe they did. Does that mean that when someone clears land for growing bio-fuels (or anything else), they will get a whopping tax bill reflecting all the CO2 they released?

    If not, why not? May I suggest that those who balk at taxing farmers for clearing land to grow biofuels may want to consider the degree to which they are primarily interested social engineering via the carbon tax as the tool to pry us evil Westerners away from our materialistic lifestyle, and only secondarily in reducing the temperature of the planet a few degrees in the next century?

  33. Anything Congress mandates happening by 2022 can just as easily be un-mandated.

    Whoo! Good one. Happens all the time, and always before much damage is done.

  34. It’s also that even if global waring is a bunch of hooey, taxing carbon is better than taxing economic activity anyway.

    Absent revolutionary technological breakthroughs, in an energy intensive economy like ours, I’m not sure there’s all that much difference.

  35. doesn’t matter how much ethanol we produce…our establishment leaders in both parties are still 100% behind giving the House of Saud 20 billion dollar aid and weapons packages regularly

    What are you talking about? The house of Saud isn’t a recipient of US aid. They usually overpay for arms they don’t need, kind of like protection money.

    Egypt and Israel are a different story though.

  36. “This may take a few years to reach, but eventually. Is the government just going to give up that revenue? I think not. It will be like the cigarette tax.”

    I agree. The government will likely continue to tax us to whatever extent we find tolerable.

    I suspect we may find carbon taxes less tolerable, generally, but then I remember when the government said my dad could only buy gasoline on even dates ’cause his license plate ended in an even number. …people got mad.

    I suspect people may grow less tolerant of the income tax once we’ve gone ten years or so without one.

    …but even if the rate at which carbon is taxed continues to escalate, over time, I expect the rate at which income and capital gains are taxed to escalate in line with government spending too. …and I’d have the government tax carbon rather than income and capital gains.

    I guess that’s the part I can’t seem to get across to my fellow libertarians and conservatives–it’s that income and capital gains taxes are so irrational and so destructive that just getting rid of them, other things being equal, would be such a huge plus.

    We’ve dreamed of moving from where we are to a flat tax or–better yet–a sales tax since the Reagan Administration. Well here comes the sales tax we’ve been hoping for on a silver plate!

    I think we can get a sizable portion of the progressive vote on our side for this, but some of us are against it because, what, we don’t think global warming is real? …because we’re not sure climate change will have a significant or adverse impact?

    I don’t understand why those objections are even relevant.

    It’s like when the state lottery calls to tell you you’ve won a million dollars. You don’t quibble about whether you like the governor–you take the friggin’ money! If I’m hearing progressives tell me they want to get rid of the income tax, I don’t quibble about my bedfellows–I just agree.

    And I encourage any progressives and environmentalists out there–talk to your friends! Tell them they either have to explain how our economy is going to survive a carbon tax or they have to get behind the elimination of almost every other tax except for the carbon tax.

    …or just watch the world go up in smoke! Do it for the children! …blah, blah, blah. You know the drill.

  37. Did someone say something about carbon taxes?

    I think I might have said this on that thread as well, but while I agree with the idea of carbon taxes, your excerpt here illustrates the main problem with them – what the heck do you set the rate at?

    The carbon debts associated with US corn are measured in tens rather than hundreds of years. But the second study suggests that producing corn for fuel rather than food could have dramatic knock-on effects elsewhere.

    The conflicting studies and uncertain second and third order effects demonstrate the biggest intrinsic weakness of what is, at heart, a centrally planned economic policy. Unlike say, gasoline taxes, where paying for road construction provides an economic feedback loop, there is no real feedback mechanisms to indicate that you have priced the carbon tax “correctly”.

    But I have no good answer to address this weakness, and still believe that some sort of carbon tax is the best policy choice at this juncture.

  38. “Absent revolutionary technological breakthroughs, in an energy intensive economy like ours, I’m not sure there’s all that much difference.”

    I suspect we’d see some old technological applications scale very rapidly. I imagine solar panels becoming standard on most new homes. I imagine smart cars taking off big.

    I imagine more people in North Carolina and Arizona and fewer people in Upstate New York. I imagine more people living closer to work.

    I imagine people who live off their savings would do a lot better. I imagine people saving for their retirement.

    I have a big imagination.

  39. “what the heck do you set the rate at?”

    It’s not as if they use some rational means to set income taxes.

    If you don’t think people will get too mad, they go higher. If people get too mad, they go lower.

  40. Gabe – if we don’t need oil, we don’t need the Saudis. I think there would be a qualitative and quantitative change in any aid packages they receive.

    Exactly. For example, look at our attitude toward Panama after we realized that most of our shipping and many of our capital warships are either too big to use their canal or just don’t need to.

  41. ***It’s also that even if global waring is a bunch of hooey, taxing carbon is better than taxing economic activity anyway.***

    ***Absent revolutionary technological breakthroughs, in an energy intensive economy like ours, I’m not sure there’s all that much difference.***

    R.C.: Trust me, this would make a difference. Suppose that a family of 4 makes $100,000 per year and currently pay $10,000 in federal income taxes, which is probably about typical. Now, lets say that the same family currently uses 10,000 units of carbon spread across gasoline, home heating fuel, electricity, airplane tickets, plastic water bottles, etc., etc. Now suppose that the tax is set at $1 per carbon unit to collect the same $10,000. When you turn down your thermostat a degree, you now save on fuel cost and on the tax, so you have a greater incentive than you currently do. Same with driving your car: trips to the store will now cost you the gas and the new tax. Vacations with car or flying on a plane? More tax to dodge by traveling less far. The result would be that you would move away from carbon-intensive goods and services and towards less carbon-intensive products, like premium cable channels, wool sweaters, and high mileage cars.

  42. Ken Schultz-
    You got a good point.

    But first look at stuff like property taxes and gasoline taxes.

    There is at least an notional (if *very* imperfect) connection to respectively, schools and roads. So this has the addition political calculus of “what do want wrt schools and roads?” || “what are we getting with schools and roads” which are both closer to being measurable.

    The carbon tax is trying to figure out “what do we want for environmental protection” || “what are we getting for environmental protection” the second of these especially is very hard to measure.

    So you may be on with that the carbon tax is closer to the income tax than a use tax. The structure of the federal budget means that the income tax is basically paying for national defense (thx btw). Which brings another set of “how much do we want, what are we getting?” questions. And these are some of the central questions of our time, esp since the end of the cold war. Do you think these are being addressed correctly or even adequately these days? Heck, the history of the implementation of the income tax would be an argument against any sort of new carbon tax scheme.

  43. If you really want to turn people against ethanol run a Super Bowl ad that informs them that increased ethanol demand appears to be causing many farmers to replace barley crops with corn which is leading to higher beer prices.

  44. You’re right, climate warming is a problem.
    This shows exactly how.

  45. Turning Food into Fuel is Worse than Burning Gasoline for the Planet

    Of course it is. It reminds me of something I saw on a show called “World’s Worst Inventions” – a battery recharger which uses about a dozen full batteries to charge two empty ones. This was a joke, and so is producing ethanol with has less energy value than the fossil fuels required to make it.

  46. Eric said:
    “Environmentalists demonize all practical solutions.”

    and Concerned Environmentalist said:
    “Aaargh! Why didn’t the tell us this years ago before we convinced congress to hand over billions in subsidies to MegaAgriCorp?!?! Now we’re going to look silly after all those marches and protests and festivals and rock concerts and all that.

    If only scientists got it right the first time, then we could better know how to run your lives!”

    Actual Environmentalists and renewable fuels researchers have been saying for years that Corn Ethanol and Soy Diesel were bad ideas. The fault for this does not lie with them, but with the corn and soy lobby, and their tools in DC.

    FWIW, Palm Oil and Jatropha Curcas are better, but Algal oil will be best.

  47. Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

  48. This whole argument reminds me of “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin”. You’re all arguing about something that is basically unknown, and only time will tell, and the most likely result will be that there is little if any effect, and any methods we use to change it will result in nothing more than handouts to corn growers, pandering to psychotic environmentalists, and more Oscars for Al Gore.

    If it weren’t for the fact that we’re all going to get fucked by this bullshit, I’d be laughing.

  49. –better yet–a sales tax

    Ken Shultz, I’ve never understood favoring a sales tax. Wouldn’t it penalize transactions and lead to vertical mega corps? It would be more cost effective for companies to own everything from extracting stuff from the ground to feeding and housing employees to using in-house medical staff. People would want to be paid in goods (preferably manufactured by their company) instead of cash.

    A little more on topic, these kind of calculations to figure out the most effective solutions are always flawed. Scientists are good at doing “back of the envelope calculations,” or even formal examinations such as this, but in something with as many inputs and variables as ethanol usage and global warming, scientists (and the government) certainly aren’t capable of deciding what will be the most effective technologies. Carbon taxes make more sense than government incentives.

  50. Admit Alberta into the Union.

  51. maybe if the lefties had let us use nuclear power 30 years ago the polar bears would have a chance today.

    f’in liberals.

  52. “Carbon taxes make more sense than government incentives.”
    Yes — when you single out a technology to be subsidized, you run the risk of spending money on an ineffective boondoggle. We don’t yet know what works best.

    We also don’t yet know how people will respond to economic incentives. So I don’t understand why so many are certain a carbon tax is better than a cap-and-trade scheme. It’s (comparatively) easier to estimate how much carbon we want in the atmosphere — there’s been a lot of study of the effect of carbon on temperature, and of temperature on climate, although there’s uncertainty in the models. It might be possible to say with some accuracy, “No more than such-and-such amount of carbon can be emitted.” On the other hand, if you want to find an optimal tax, you have to predict behavior. There’s politics, culture, and psychology involved. People haven’t been working on the economics of climate change for decades. To the first two questions (How does carbon affect temperature? How does temperature affect climate?) we add a third, harder question: how does cost affect carbon emissions? If we set the tax wrong we could wreck the economy with an overly punitive tax, or wreck the planet with an overly light one.

  53. Can’t we just burn fat people?

  54. Not much fun in Stalingrad…

  55. I was head of Gestapo for ten years. Five years! No, no, nein…not head of Gestapo at all! I make joke.

  56. Hi all: I’ve never had the temerity to declare a thread winner, but CharlesWT’s comment at 7:12 pm comes damned close.

    In less than a century, we’ve gone from competing with our draft animals to our SUVs for food.

  57. That was a good one, but when times are bad you can’t eat your SUV.

  58. So I don’t understand why so many are certain a carbon tax is better than a cap-and-trade scheme.

    The fact that cap-and-trade schemes are purely artificial political creatures that are much more subject to gaming by nations and interest groups might have something to do with it.

    Since the cost of cap-and-trade ultimately gets passed on to the consumer, it really functions as an indirect tax. Why not pass on the opportunity for rent-seeking and corruption, and cut straight to the tax?

  59. I know, I know, the legislation mandates that about half of it must come from cellulosic sources, not food, but nobody knows how to do that yet economically.

    Ready! Fire! Aim!

    Anything Congress mandates happening by 2022 can just as easily be un-mandated.

    Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. Congress unmandating. Riiiiight.

  60. I think we can get a sizable portion of the progressive vote on our side for this [carbon tax].

    I’m not optimistic; they are awfully hung up on “progressivity” [punishing success], and I find it unlikely in the extreme that the Progressives will accept any displacement of income taxes by the carbon tax. They will want the carbon tax to be additive, in order to fund their multifarious dreams of wealth redistribution.

  61. Not to worry. When the energy tax pushes the economy into a recession Congress can always come up with another Stimulus Package ™. Rebates for every American! Huzzah!

  62. “I’m not optimistic; they are awfully hung up on “progressivity” [punishing success], and I find it unlikely in the extreme that the Progressives will accept any displacement of income taxes by the carbon tax. They will want the carbon tax to be additive, in order to fund their multifarious dreams of wealth redistribution.”

    Any “additive” carbon tax big enough to make an impact would crush our economy.

    I think even the progressives understand that.

  63. I think even the progressives understand that.

    But do they care?

  64. I think they understand that anything that so obviously destroys the economy just isn’t going to happen.

    There are completely unreasonable people out there, sure. …in all camps including our own. So yeah, I think they care because I think they may understand that the only way we’re going to have an impact on global warming is by doing something big.

    It may not be a Republican or a business interest guy that gets this done sort of like it took a Nixon to make a deal with communist China. …but I think the same could be said on the other side, do we care enough about getting rid of our present tax system to make a deal with progressives and environmentalists?

    I say we get the grown ups together and let cool heads prevail.

  65. I say we get the grown ups together and let cool heads prevail.

    I’m willing to hope for that.

  66. I say we get the grown ups together and let cool heads prevail.

    And I say we leave people the fuck alone.

    This talk about “grown-ups” really chaps my ass. Yes, this country is all about a few wise heads getting together and telling everybody how it will be, complete with social engineering, tax incentives, “Manhattan projects”, and topped off with little pats on the head: “Don’t worry about it, sonny, the grownups will get together and cooler heads will prevail.”

    You should listen to yourselves. [spit]

  67. This talk about “grown-ups” really chaps my ass.

    Agreed, but any solution requires social engineering. You agree with Ron that a tax is less easy to manipulate, but where do you assess the tax? Ron suggests taxing upstream because it is the easiest, but this only support avoiding usage of fossil fuels, not clean usage. For instance, upstream taxation does not support my magic widget that sequesters all of the carbon coming from a car and turns it into diamonds.

    To get the best bang for the buck, the tax should be close to the emitter, based on how much carbon is actually dumped in the air. Unfortunately that becomes fodder for manipulation, how does the government decide how much an activity adds?

    Commons problems are hard.

  68. Try to relax RC, I was talking about unreasonable people, “grown ups” being the opposite of that.

    Some of us wouldn’t cut a deal with progressives and environmentalists no matter what, opposite that there’s the “grown ups”.

    I wasn’t calling for a congress of elites to work this out for us. …for Christ’s sake!

  69. stuartl: yes, there’s going to be some manipulation as you choose what to tax. Do you deduct air travel as a business expense? How do you estimate how much carbon is produced?

    RC Dean: I know that a cap-and-trade is an indirect tax. The choice between them is about which can be implemented best. First, I’m not sure that a tax doesn’t also allow scope for corruption: if the taxes are assessed “upstream” couldn’t, say, auto companies try to under-estimate their carbon emissions? Second, we don’t know how elastic the demand for energy is, so it’s hard to get the tax right. Third, we may need to get other countries on board: cap-and-trade allows a natural extension by exchanging credits with developing countries (paying them not to pollute.) Fourth, to be blunt, three of four front-running presidential candidates already support cap-and-trade. Being pragmatic might make things happen faster.

  70. alisa,

    Trying to make things happen faster is the root cause of the environmental destruction caused by biofuels.

    More deliberation at this point is a feature not a bug.

  71. The basic point of these studies is correct: the development of biofuels can cause changes in land use that lead to relatively large emissions of carbon from soils and biomass. Indeed, this basic finding has been known, and quantified, for almost 20 years. The Searchinger et al. paper does do something relatively new: it uses an agricultural model to estimate global changes in production and consumption, the first step in estimating emissions due to land use change. (It also has a detailed treatment of changes in land use by type of ecosystem.) However, both papers suffer three serious general deficiencies, apart from whatever legitimate questions one might have about details of the modeling.

    First, the studies do not have a complete conceptual treatment of what happens over time. Most importantly, they ignore the carbon sequestration that will tend to happen when the biofuel programs end and the land-use changes that occurred at the start of the program are reversed. Related to this, the explicit or implicit treatment of the timing of impacts in the studies – namely, that there is no distinction to be made between climate impacts that occur today and climate impacts that occur many decades from now – is not economically realistic.

    Second, changes in land use affect much more than just carbon stocks in soils and biomass: they also affect albedo, hydrodynamics, the nitrogen cycle, dust emissions, and more. All of these omitted factors can have significant effects on climate, and not all of these effects are “bad” (i.e., warming). Without doing a comprehensive analysis of all of the climate-relevant effects of land-use change, it is not possible to make general statements about the effects of land-use change on climate.

    Third, both studies add emissions from land-use change to emissions from the rest of the lifecycle of biofuels, and then make general statements about how considering land-use change affects total emissions from and the overall desirability of biofuels. However, there is as yet no remotely good model of emissions from the “rest” of the life cycle of biofuels, and as a result it is not possible to make any definitive statements about the overall impact of considering land-use change emissions in lifecycle analysis.

    In sum, these studies highlight an important (and generally well known) effect of the development of biofuels, but leave out a great many important factors, and do not tell us anything definitive about the overall impact of biofuels on climate.

    Mark Delucchi
    Institute of Transportation Studies
    University of California, Davis
    http://www.its.ucdavis.edu/people/faculty/delucchi

  72. “More deliberation at this point is a feature not a bug.”

    Maybe not. What if the next president serves two terms and there’s no action on climate for eight years? How many people around the world will get their first cars in those eight years?

    Political expedience is usually a weak argument for doing anything. But I sense something fishy in people who say they support a carbon tax, but only in a form that Democrats and Republicans would find unappealing. If a carbon tax goes through, it will probably be part of a big environmental plan full of regulations and “green” subsidies, and it won’t replace the income tax. Myself, I’d support that; the alternative looks like a long, risky period of inaction.

  73. This is, unsurprisingly, just a bunch of government propaganda being spoon fed to us. What they’re not telling you is that thousands of acres of rain forests have already been and are continuing to be cleared for factory farming, e.g. the raising of cattle for mass production in the modern meat industry. The animals on these overcrowded factory farms are a major contributor to global warming, more than automobiles and transportation. 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions are released from these farms, in fact, compared to the 13.5% emitted from transport.

    These pastures account for 70% of the deforested areas in the Amazon. Any idiot could reason that if these pastures that ALREADY EXIST could be, even if only partially, converted into land solely for the use of growing these crops to be converted into biofuel, no additional forests would have to be destroyed.

    Oh, and here’s the kicker: Biofuel doesn’t have to come from new crops, morons. It can just as easily, and more efficiently, be made from used kitchen grease and cooking oils. So in other words we have the source right at our fingertips – there’s a restaurant on every corner in America and kitchens certainly aren’t scarce in the rest of the modern world, either.

    Our politicians don’t want you to know this because they are funded by, and essentially work for, this massive, ridiculously profitable industry. Corporate factory farms and the government that collects revenue from them don’t want anyone to know the truth about global warming because it would drastically impact their bottom-lines. Period.

    It’s time to speak out and let these people know that we’re smarter and better informed than they think we are.

    Do the research. Here’s a link to get you started: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com

  74. To sum up what Jacqueline said. There was a great deal of land being cleared anyway for agriculture.

    Much of that, directly or indirectly, is related to food subsidies and regulations in the wealthiest of countries; combined with the lack of accounting of the market value of the natural services provided by wild lands, we of course see senseless destruction of the same.

    If there is going to be an effort towards a “Manhattan Project’ wrt biofuels, it should go to algal and biomass oils and alcohols. Though I imagine we could achieve the same result by just halting market protections and subsidies for fossil fuel companies.

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