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Biofuel Displacing Food Crops May Have Bigger Carbon Impact Than Thought

A report examining the impact of a global biofuels program on greenhouse gas emissions during the 21st century has found that carbon loss stemming from the displacement of food crops and pastures for biofuels crops may be twice as much as the CO2 emissions from land dedicated to biofuels production. The study, led by Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) senior scientist Jerry Melillo, also predicts that increased fertilizer use for biofuels production will cause nitrous oxide emissions (N2O) to become more important than carbon losses, in terms of warming potential, by the end of the century.

Using a global modeling system that links economic and biogeochemistry data, Melillo, MBL research associate David Kicklighter, and their colleagues examined the effects of direct and indirect land-use on greenhouse gas emissions as the production of biofuels increases over this century. They report their findings in the October 22 issue of Science Express.

Direct land-use emissions are generated from land committed solely to bioenergy production. Indirect land-use emissions occur when biofuels production on cropland or pasture displaces agricultural activity to another location, causing additional land-use changes and a net increase in carbon loss.

No major countries currently include carbon emissions from biofuel-related land-use changes in their carbon loss accounting and there is concern about the practicality of including such losses in a system designed to reduce fossil-fuel emissions. Moreover, methods to assess indirect land-use emissions are controversial. All quantitative analyses to date have either ignored indirect emissions altogether, considered those associated from crop displacement from a limited area, confused indirect emissions with direct or general land-use emissions, or developed estimates based on a static framework of today’s economy…
(22 Oct 2009)

Biofuels rather than electric cars to meet renewables target

the ecologist
Industry research says biofuels, not electric cars or biogas likely to make up majority of renewable transport targets but admits some will need to be imported

Biofuels should make up the majority of the UK’s target for 10 per cent of all road transport energy to come from renewable sources by 2020, according to new research.

A report carried out by the Renewable Energy Association (REA) and peer-reviewed by Imperial College London says the domestic arable sector would be able to meet bioethanol demands.

However, it admits that virtually all biodiesal would need to be imported.

The report says technologies like electric cars and biogas would not be ready to make a major contribution by 2020.

REA said ‘negativity’ around biofuels in the UK had put off investors and that the infrastructure was still lacking in the UK. It said with the right commitments from the Government, bioethanol production in the UK had the potential to rise by 20 times its current level by 2020.

…A further study, ‘Indirect emissions from biofuels: how important?’ published in Science Express today found the switch from food to fuel crops was likely to lead to increased and not less carbon emissions.
(22 Oct 2009)
From the article:
Useful links
REA report

UNEP report
Science Express report

See also

Tanzania Suspends Biofuels Investments

Pete Browne, Green Inc.
Reacting to mounting pressure from farmers and environmental groups citing concerns over food shortages, the Tanzanian government has reportedly suspended all biofuel investments in the country and halted land allocations for biofuel development.

“The government was asleep,” Esther Mfugale, the coordinator of biofuel production for Tanzania’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food Security and Cooperatives, was quoted as saying in an interview with The East African newspaper. “We have to stop and set out clear procedures for biofuel investments.”

This follows news of a pending report from Envirocare, an environmental and human rights organization in the country, on the impact of the jatropha industry in the country, which we highlighted last week.

An early version of the Envirocare study was apparently given to The East African newspaper…
(14 Oct 2009)
It seems that caution needs to be exercised in regard to this story at present. -KS

Who says it’s green to burn woodchips?

The Independent, Graham Mole
One of the most cherished articles of faith of the green movement – that wood-fuelled power stations can help save the planet – is being increasingly challenged by campaigners and conservationists around the world.

Electricity generated by burning woodchips is on the verge of a global boom. America is planning 102 power stations fuelled by woodchips in the next few years. Europe is reported to be planning a similar, if yet unquantified, expansion. And in Britain, the next three years will see wood-fuelled power station capacity increase sevenfold, requiring, according to the campaign group Biofuelwatch, so much timber that it would need an area 12 times the size of Liechtenstein to grow it.

The power companies say the source will be “sustainable forests”, but campaigners and ecologists claim that untold damage will be caused by the burgeoning market for wood. They say that, although traders in the developing world are being tempted to grub up and sell native forests, the chief danger is in the creation of monoculture plantations, where single species of trees are grown in straight rows and little wildlife can establish a home for itself.

They also challenge the “green” assumptions behind woodchip power, claiming that, far from fighting climate change, transporting large amounts of bulk wood across oceans and then burning it will increase carbon discharges by 50 per cent more than would have been caused by burning a fossil fuel like coal.

…The issue may yet prove just to be a panicky reaction to a radical expansion of wood energy, or it may be a portent of a deep problem. If so, it will echo the evolution of biofuels, initially embraced as a universal blessing before it was realised that native forests were being grubbed up to grow palm oil, and that US farmers would switch from food cereals to fuel cereals, thus causing a world food shortage.

Some campaigners are in no doubt. Almuth Ernsting from Biofuelwatch said: “It’s almost unbelievable that we’re creating vast areas of monoculture, mile after mile, just to be cut down as fast as they grow, to be shipped thousands of miles to be burned just for people’s electricity. It just doesn’t make sense. What about all the habitat that gets destroyed along the way?”…
(25 Oct 2009)

Carbon advantage of biofuels may be overstated

Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post
The world’s policymakers and scientists have made a critical error in how they count biofuels’ contribution to human-generated greenhouse-gas emissions, according to a paper published Thursday in the journal Science.

Although the article addresses a wonkish subject — how to measure the environmental impact of energy sources such as ethanol and wood chips, which absorb carbon as they grow but release it back into the atmosphere when they’re burned — it has broad implications. The method undercounts the global-warming contribution of some bioenergy crops, the team of 13 researchers wrote, because it doesn’t factor in what sort of land-use changes might occur to produce them.

“We made an honest mistake within the scientific framing of the debate, and we’ve got to correct it to make it right,” said Steven P. Hamburg, chief scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund and one of the paper’s authors.

When calculating the greenhouse-gas emissions limit, government officials in the United States, Europe and elsewhere do not count the carbon that biofuels release when they are burned. But carbon is released when a producer clears and burns trees, even to grow a crop destined for the biofuels market. Officials also established a legal system that limits emissions from energy use but not from land-use activities such as clearing forests.

In recent months, researchers have begun to worry that bioenergy crops could replace the world’s forests and savannahs on a huge scale unless climate policies start to take full account of how these crops’ production affects greenhouse-gas concentrations. None of the major climate regimes — including the Kyoto Protocol, the European Union’s carbon market and the House-passed climate bill — account for the carbon released by changing land use for biofuels…
(23 Oct 2009)