Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Whoops! Ethanol exacerbates global warming

This op-ed piece in today's WSJ highlights two new studies in the peer-reviewed journal Science that explain how ethanol and other biofuels are actually worse for the environment than fossil fuels.

"The first, by ecologists at Princeton and the Woods Hole Research Center, reviews the environmental consequences of increased biofuel consumption, which had never been examined comprehensively ... The researchers break new ground by exposing a kind of mega-accounting error: Prior studies had never credited the carbon-dioxide emissions that arise when virgin forests, grasslands and the like are cleared to grow biofuel feedstocks ... So, incredibly, when the hidden costs of conversion are included, greenhouse-gas emissions from corn ethanol over the next 30 years will be twice as high as from regular gasoline. In the long term, it will take 167 years before the reduction in carbon emissions from using ethanol "pays back" the carbon released by land-use change.


The second study comes out of the University of Minnesota and the Nature Conservancy and explores what the authors call the "carbon debt" when native ecosystems are converted to biofuel stock. Until the debt is repaid, biofuels from those fields will be greater net emitters than the fossil fuels they replace. The authors find that the debt for corn ethanol in the U.S. is between 48 and 93 years. In Indonesia and Malaysia, which have a 1.5% annual rate of deforestation to produce palm oil for Western European biodiesel, the debt is as high as 423 years."

Too bad H.R. 6 was just signed into law, mandating 36 billion gallons of biofuel by 2022.

The article's cheery conclusion:

"... special blame also belongs to the environmentalists, who are engaged in a grand bait-and-switch. They stir up a panic about global warming, and Washington responds to the political incentives. Then those policies don't work and the greens immediately begin pushing a new substitute, whose outcomes and costs are equally uncertain. But somehow, that never seems to discredit the entire enterprise and taxpayers keep footing the subsidy bill. Our guess is that these new revelations will also be ignored. They're too embarrassing."