It is official: the Green Blues has begun. Almost all bio-fuels used today cause more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels if the full emissions costs of producing these “green” fuels are taken into account, two new studies published in the top-tier journal Science have concluded.
The studies for the first time take a detailed, comprehensive look at the emissions effects of the huge amount of natural land that is being converted to cropland globally to support biofuels development. The destruction of natural ecosystems — whether rain forest in the tropics or grasslands in South America — not only releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere when they are burned and plowed, but also deprives the planet of natural sponges to absorb carbon emissions. Cropland also absorbs far less carbon than the rain forests or even scrubland that it replaces.
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.
This is horrible news news for biofuel proponents. In the energy bill just passed, the U.S. is betting heavily on ethanol, mandating a sixfold increase in the use of biofuels by 2022. Current ethanol demands are already pushing up grain and meat prices and contributing to inflation. The tradeoff was that we were saving the world. Now that bargain looks pretty shaky.
But not all is lost on the biofuel front. Some companies are working on ways to make fuel from algae or ”waste” plants like sawgrass that wouldn’t prompt farmers to clear-cut the precious rainforests and grasslands.