Biofuels took a big hit yesterday with the release of two studies that clearly show they release more CO2 than conventional fuels once their entire life-cycle is taken into account.
Previously, the line on biofuels was that they were carbon neutral because the carbon they released when burned was balanced by the carbon that was absorbed by the plants they were made from while those plants were growing. But like much accounting done today, that conclusion overlooked several critical parts of the chain, which the new studies have now addressed. Namely that the process of clearing and burning land to grow biofuel feed stocks releases more CO2 than the biofuels to be produced on that land will save in about a century, and the crops that replace the rainforest or brush that used to be there won’t absorb nearly as much CO2 as the original vegetation. Add in the emissions created by refining and transporting biofuels and you’ve got a significant net gain in CO2 releases even when compared to conventional fuels.
This is a classic example of why we need systems thinking in approaching environmental problems. Because, as John Muir once noted, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." We can’t look to biofuels as a solution until we look at their entire production system, at all the things they are hitched to from the ecosystem their farms replace to the energy needed to make them. There’s so much more than just what happens when you grow the plants and then burn them, and it’s gratifying to see someone somewhere grasping this essential point.
Personally, I’m pleased to see biofuels take what may be a fatal blow. I was never very enamored of them. For me, the whole point here on early 21st century Earth is that we humans must stop burning things. If you want to boil it down to one essential idea, that’s it. So much of today’s trouble is being created because we simply keep burning stuff. Oil. Coal. Rainforests. Garbage. You name it. Biofuels simply trade one kind of burning for another, and now it’s clear that that’s a trade with a serious negative atmospheric balance.
There’s also the fact that biofuels were starting to squeeze the food supply as crops previously destined for hungry people were diverted to biofuels. Food prices have been rising and shortages popping up, especially where corn is concerned. And the first people to suffer are those who can least afford. So if we widen our systems perspective here even further, we see that biofuels aren’t doing anything to promote equity or end world hunger either.
The only thing that biofuels really do is forestall the day when our energy comes from clean, plentiful sources that don’t cost us our health or the planet we live on. Good riddance.