Friday, 8 February 2008

Biofuel crops 'increase carbon emissions'

Biofuel crops 'increase carbon emissions

By Paul Eccleston
Last Updated: 7:01pm GMT 07/02/2008

Ploughing up land to produce crops for biofuels won't help the fight against climate change, a major new survey claims.

Digging up valuable agricultural results in major emissions of carbon and wipes out any savings through the use of green fuels.

A palm oil factory surrounded by palm oil plantations in Riau province, Sumatra, Indonesia
The findings come in a new study - the first of its kind - by The Nature Conservancy and the University of Minnesota which will be published in Science later this month.They are set to reignite the heated scinetific debate over the effectiveness of biofuels which are produced from organic crops such as corn, sugar beet or wheat.

The study's lead author Dr Joe Fargione, a scientist for The Nature Conservancy, said: "This research examines the conversion of land for biofuels and asks the question 'Is it worth it?' Does the carbon you lose by converting forests, grasslands, and peatlands outweigh the carbon you 'save' by using biofuels instead of fossil fuels? And surprisingly, the answer is no."

"These natural areas store a lot of carbon, so converting them to croplands results in tons of carbon emitted into the atmosphere."

The race to produce biofuels has already brought warnings of a potential environmental and humanitarian catastrophe.

There are fears that vast tracts of land will be ploughed over to biofuel crops resulting in damage on a global scale. Much of the destruction of tropical rainforests - one of the biggest sources of CO2 emissions - is blamed on land being cleared for crops.

The conversion of peatlands in Indonesia for palm oil plantations and deforestation in the Amazon for soy production have resulted in carbon losses, according to the new report.
There have also been warnings that growing crops for fuel rather than food could result in food shortages and if it happens globally the world will slip from a net surplus of food to a net deficit.
Concerns about the effectiveness of biofuels resulted last month in the EU announcing a review of its policy of running vehicles on biofuels instead of petrol and diesel to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Europe had hoped that biofuels would make up 10 per cent of transport fuel by 2020 and the UK had set a target of 5 per cent biofuels in petrol and diesel by 2010.

In the study Dr Fargione says: "We analysed all the benefits of using biofuels as alternatives to oil, but we found that the benefits fall far short of the carbon losses. It's what we call 'the carbon debt.' If you're trying to mitigate global warming, it simply does not make sense to convert land for biofuels production."

"All the biofuels we use now cause habitat destruction, either directly or indirectly. Global agriculture is already producing food for 6 billion people. Producing food-based biofuel, too, will require that still more land be converted to agriculture."

The study points out that increased demand for ethanol corn crops in America is resulting in the conversion of land in the Brazilian Amazon. The switch by US farmers from traditionally rotated corn crops with soybeans to corn every year had led Brazilian farmers to plant more of the world's soybeans, resulting in deforestation of the Amazon.

They also found significant carbon 'debt' in the conversion of grasslands in the US and rainforests in Indonesia.

The conversion of peatlands for palm oil plantations in Indonesia ran up the greatest carbon debt which would require 423 years to pay off. The production of soybeans in the Amazon, which would not "pay for itself" in renewable soy biodiesel for 319 years.

Stephen Polasky, Professor of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota, said: "We don't have proper incentives in place because landowners are rewarded for producing palm oil and other products but not rewarded for carbon management.

This creates incentives for excessive land clearing and can result in large increases in carbon emissions.

Jimmie Powell, who leads the energy team at The Nature Conservancy, said: "In finding solutions to climate change, we must ensure that the cure is not worse than the disease.
We cannot afford to ignore the consequences of converting land for biofuels. Doing so means we might unintentionally promote fuel alternatives that are worse than fossil fuels they are designed to replace. These findings should be incorporated into carbon emissions policy going forward."

The study says some biofuels do not contribute to global warming because they do not require the conversion of native habitat. These include waste from agriculture and forest lands and native grasses and woody biomass grown on marginal lands unsuitable for crop production.
The scientists urge that all fuels be fully evaluated for their impacts on global warming, including impacts on habitat conversion.

Biofuels could have an important role to play in meeting energy needs - despite widespread criticism, the National Farmers' Union said.

The President of the NFU Peter Kendall, told a farming conference in Cambridge that biofuels had become the "whipping boy of choice for the chattering classes and even some within the farming community".

While they were not a panacea for the world's renewable energy needs, much of the criticism they were coming in for over environmental destruction or competing with food for land was exaggerated or wrong and the debate needed more balance.