Biofuels imperilling the planet in the name of saving it

From good article in Time:

Brazil just announced that deforestation is on track to double this year; ... This land rush is being accelerated by an unlikely source: biofuels. An explosion in demand for farm-grown fuels has raised global crop prices to record highs, which is spurring a dramatic expansion of Brazilian agriculture, which is invading the Amazon at an increasingly alarming rate. ...

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.

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From AFP:

The use of crop-based biofuels could speed up rather than slow down global warming by fueling the destruction of rainforests, scientists warned Saturday.

Once heralded as the answer to oil, biofuels have become increasingly controversial because of their impact on food prices and the amount of energy it takes to produce them.

They could also be responsible for pumping far more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than they could possibly save as a replacement for fossil fuels, according to a study released Saturday.

"If we run our cars on biofuels produced in the tropics, chances will be good that we are effectively burning rainforests in our gas tanks," warned Holly Gibbs, of Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment.

Gibbs studied satellite photos of the tropics from 1980 to 2000 and found that half of new cropland came from intact rainforests and another 30 percent from disturbed forests.

"When trees are cut down to make room for new farmland, they are usually burned, sending their stored carbon to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide," Gibbs said.

For high-yield crops like sugar cane it would take 40 to 120 years to pay back this carbon debt.

For lower yield crops like corn or soybeans it would take 300 to 1,500 years, she told reporters at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Biofuels may speed up, not slow global warming: study

More on perils of biofuels, from European Environmental Bureau:

Plans to increase the use of biofuels in Europe over the next ten years will require up to 69 000 square kilometres of new land worldwide and make climate change worse, a new study reveals today [1].

The report finds that an area over twice the size of Belgium will need to be converted into fields and plantations – putting forests, natural ecosystems and poor communities in danger, if European countries do not change their plans for getting petrol and diesel from food crops by 2020.

The new research analyses for the first time biofuel use planned by the EU’s member states in their renewable energy plans [2], concluding that:

  • Europe is set to increase significantly biofuel use by 2020 when biofuels will provide 9.5% of transport fuel – more than 90% of which will come from food crops.
  • When indirect land use change is taken into account, biofuels will emit an extra 27 to 56 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions per year – the equivalent to an extra 12 to 26 million cars on Europe’s roads by 2020.
  • Unless EU policy changes, the extra biofuels that Europe will use over the next decade will be on average 81 to 167% worse for the climate than fossil fuels.

Under the plans, five countries will be responsible for over two thirds of the increase in emissions. The UK, Spain, Germany, Italy and France are projected to produce the most extra greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels – with up to 13.3, 9.5, 8.6, 5.3 and 3.9 extra million tonnes of CO2 per year respectively.

Adrian Bebb from Friends of the Earth Europe said: “The scale of the damage that European countries will cause with their biofuels plans is now clear – forests and nature will be destroyed on a shocking scale to fuel our cars. The resulting release of climate-damaging greenhouse gases will make biofuels a worse polluter than fossil fuels. The EU needs to urgently review the sustainability of using biofuels and ensure their use does not lead to more climate change or environmental destruction.”

Laura Sullivan from ActionAid: “Biofuels are not a climate-friendly solution to our energy needs. The EU plans effectively give companies a blank cheque to continue grabbing land from the world’s poor to grow biofuels to fill our tanks rather than food to fill their stomachs. Europe’s energy policies are putting millions of people in danger, threatening Africa’s fragile food security”.

The research, commissioned by a coalition of environmental and development organisations [3], includes indirect land use change impacts caused by biofuels, making it the most realistic assessment so far of the real world impacts of EU biofuels targets. It comes at a key time for EU biofuel policy, with the European Commission due to report on how to address and minimise these emissions by the end of the year.

The groups are calling on EU governments and the European Commission to review urgently the real impacts of biofuels on climate change and food security, and to prioritise energy efficiency in transport. New legislation must take account of the full carbon footprint of biofuels by introducing indirect land use change ‘factors’.

Nusa Urbancic of Transport & Environment said: “This research shows that EU biofuels targets are putting climate policy for transport in reverse gear. Until indirect land use change is fully taken into account, Europe will continue to subsidise an alternative energy that is no better than the fossil fuels it is designed to replace.”

Read the four page briefing of the study here.

Europe’s biofuels plans driving social and environmental destruction