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Study Challenges Biofuel Numbers Game

Friday, October 23, 2009


A study in the journal Science today got widespread news coverage by pointing out a major flaw in the way the world has been calculating the impact of biofuels use on the atmosphere’s greenhouse gas buildup and global warming.

The study, conducted by Timothy D. Searchinger, a research scholar at Princeton University, and 12 other scientists and land use experts, has found that the way these assessments are currently made – under the Kyoto Protocol, in the European Union’s carbon trading market and in the climate bill now pending in Congress – fails to recognize that the sources of biofuels “feedstock” make a huge difference.

The study’s authors concluded that the way the rules have been mostly written so far and the failure to count biofuel emissions appropriately could actually create huge incentives to plow up more forests and grasslands for biofuels production. And almost nobody thinks that’s a good thing.

Craig Cox, a vice president at Environmental Working Group and head of its Midwest operation, said the new research highlights once again that in promoting biofuels that use up lots of land and water as a way to combat climate change, “we really are chasing the wrong rabbit.” It also underscores the importance of putting biofuel industries under the emissions cap that would be created under the pending U.S. legislative proposals, so that their emissions are counted in a balanced way.

“Biofuels advocates are attempting to pull those industries out from under the cap, and making a blanket assumption that using biomass to produce electricity or biofuels is by definition a way to reduce greenhouse gas,” Cox said. “That’s not the way it works in the real world. Those industries need to be pulled under the cap.”

“We’re currently diverting a third or more of the corn crop in the United States to biofuel production, “ Cox added. “The impact of that creates incentives around the globe and in U.S. to convert forest or grassland into cropland to make up for the crops going to energy. The biofuels industry does not want us to consider that effect. In a world as interconnected as it is, the notion that you can ignore the indirect effects on forest and grassland is untenable.”


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