June 16, 2024

The Myth of Biofuels

Two new studies clearly identify the major problem with biofuels, which is that they do more harm than good.

Elizabeth Rosenthal wrote the following in an interesting – and long-overdue – article for the NY Times:

Almost all biofuels 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 studies being published Thursday have concluded.

“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.”

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. “So for the next 93 years you’re making climate change worse, just at the time when we need to be bringing down carbon emissions.”

So not only are these fuels less efficient than petroleum products but their production actually causes far greater stress on the environment.  Those are two reasons why pursuing symbiotic nuclear and hydrogen power generation systems makes much more sense in the long run than ramping up production of biofuels.

And it’s not just a question of disrupting local land use to produce feed stock for the biofuel industry.  Grain prices have gone up considerably as a result – we’ve all heard about the tortilla crisis in Mexico, for instance – and the additional demand for grain has a direct causal impact on deforestation, as Dr. Fargione stated.

The panacea allegedly offered by such "natural" fuels is a mirage that, as Dr. Searchinger points out, offers only two relatively small but economically sustainable sources of power:  sugar cane and agricultural waste products.  The rest of the biofuel buzz is feel-good hyperbole that the public should counter with demands for next-generation nuclear and hydrogen power capabilities.


Marc is a software developer, writer, and part-time political know-it-all who currently resides in Texas in the good ol' U.S.A.

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