Thursday, February 14, 2008

Why Biofuels? Because the Sun Can't Vote.

Politicians love them some biofuel. Helps farmers! Promotes energy independence! Cuts our greenhouse gas emissions!

Except the evidence is piling up that the last part just isn't true. In fact, most of today's generation of biofuels are actually increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Why? While biofuels emit less CO2 when they're burned, it's their production that's the problem:

Together the two studies offer sweeping conclusions: It does not matter if it is rain forest or scrubland that is cleared, the greenhouse gas contribution is significant. More important, they discovered that, taken globally, the production of almost all biofuels resulted, directly or indirectly, intentionally or not, in new lands being cleared, either for food or fuel.

“When you take this into account, most of the biofuel that people are using or planning to use would probably increase greenhouse gasses substantially,” said Timothy Searchinger, lead author of one of the studies and a researcher in environment and economics at Princeton University. “Previously there’s been an accounting error: land use change has been left out of prior analysis.”

These plant-based fuels were originally billed as better than fossil fuels because the carbon released when they were burned was balanced by the carbon absorbed when the plants grew. But even that equation proved overly simplistic because the process of turning plants into fuels causes its own emissions — for refining and transport, for example.

The clearance of grassland releases 93 times the amount of greenhouse gas that would be saved by the fuel made annually on that land, said Joseph Fargione, lead author of the second paper, and a scientist at the Nature Conservancy.
Why do we even need biofuels? Why can't we just focus on solar, wind and tidal power and make every car a plug-in hybrid, all using technology that's already available?

Oh, right. Politicians don't pander to the planet because the sun, wind and water can't vote. Farmers can. So we get policies that benefit farmers at the cost of the planet.
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