(Yet another) reason why biofuels may not be the answer

In addition to worries about driving up food prices around the world, especially in developing nations, there comes a study from Nobel Prize-winning scientist Paul Crutzen that biofuel may be even worse for us than fossil fuels.  The team calculates that biofuels can release 50-70% more carbon dioxide than fossil fuels, as well as release roughly twice as much nitrous oxide (N2O) as previously thought.

I think the problem here is that everyone is looking for a way to maintain their current standard of living and not admit that this level of energy usage will have to decrease.  The funny thing is, it’s not all that difficult to reduce the usage, if only just a little.  I think it’s actually more difficult to get your car converted to biodiesel than biking/walking to nearby places and not leaving lights on.  But that’s just me.

(via SciTechDaily) (image from neilsphotoalbum)

Update: Apologies, I misread the news report. I should’ve found the original paper first. It turns out that Dr. Crutzen found that N2O was marketdly increased, and if the environmental effects of N2O were converted into how much cooling CO2 would do, it comes out to be the afore-stated 50-70% increase. Which is a lot. Dr. Crutzen also stated he did not take into account the fossil fuel required to power the agricultural process (plowing, harvesting, etc), not did it take into account any beneficial co-products. He only focused on N2O production. It seems there is also some controversy about the efficacy of the calculations used. Please see the paper here(pdf).

5 thoughts on “(Yet another) reason why biofuels may not be the answer”

  1. The advantage for biofuels is that the carbon released from them is carbon that is already in the environmental cycle. This carbon will be re-uptaken by the next crop of biofuel plants. The carbon in fossil fuels has been locked away from the environment for millions of years. Burning fossil fuels adds to the carbon load.

    The problem with biofuels is that we shouldn’t be using the global food supply to run our cars. Any new uses for a commodity just raises its price and encourages more exploitation. Farmers will just slash more untouched areas to grow more high priced crops and poor people won’t be able to afford to eat. Harvesting algae from the oceans might be a more benign solution.

  2. Glen you are forgetting the monumentous effects of agriculture, agri-business, transport, harvesting, irrigation and clearcutting (or burning) existing growth. All these release massive CO2 and Methane in the atmosphere.

    And let’s not even get started on the destruction of natural biotopes. Algae (and other seaculture) in that regard would allow harvesting of tank fish as well as use as convertible biomass.

    I can see huge productions of biomass, not as fuel, but for hydrocarbons in a few years – grown in lit tanks, with a steady input of heat lamps – but we will need additional sources of energy to replace oil. Energy available to mindkind doesnt even need to be consolidated, it needs to grow. Alternative energies won’t do that by a LONG shot. We need fusion reactors ASAP.

  3. Here’s a quote from the abstract of the paper:

    “When the extra N2O emission from biofuel production is calculated in “CO2-equivalent” global warming terms, and compared with the quasi-cooling effect of “saving” emissions of 15 fossil fuel derived CO2, the outcome is that the production of commonly used biofuels, such as biodiesel from rapeseed and bioethanol from corn maize), can contribute as much or more to global warming by N2O emissions than cooling by fossil fuel savings. Crops with less N demand, such as grasses and woody coppice species have more favourable climate impacts. This analysis only considers the conversion of biomass to 20 biofuel. It does not take into account the use of fossil fuel on the farms and for fertilizer and pesticide production, but it also neglects the production of useful co-products.”

    I guess I was mistaken in my post, I wish I’d found the original paper first.

  4. You mention bicycling to work, that is an option in urban areas and by all means can be pursued, however in rural areas a daily commute may be 20 or 30 miles, and mass transit while a viable option in urban areas is not cost efficient in rural and much of the country is rural.
    I think that a better solution is to further solar and wind energy not on grand scale but on personal scale
    For example get the prices down on solar and wind energy so that the every household can tap into that, even if one were to be able to supply even 10% of home energy use in wind and solar, that would be a big impact.
    Every house has a roof, get the price of solar technology down and every day you have Mr SoL making energy, and a wind generator is no more obtrusive than the old TV antennas.

  5. Based on my current ride, I wouldn’t want to do much more than the 10km I’m already doing, and weather is certainly a factor as well. Cycling in Canada in winter wouldn’t be fun.

    I think rural areas are going to have to take a pass on certain things with regards to transportation, but I also believe there should be some incentive to get people to live in places where they can bike/walk for their daily needs. A lot of the suburban movement and much of the more recent moves to isolated areas are based solely on cheap fuel for transportation, something that even now is starting to be untenable. People who want that lifestyle should have to pay for it.

    There’s something else on solar costs, I’m preparing a post for it tonight, so check the main page soon.

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