Worse Than Fossil Fuels? Why Bioenergy Is Not Green

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By the Breakthrough Institute. Originally published at OilPrice

An interview with Tim Searchinger, a Research Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson School of Princeton University and a Senior Fellow at the World Resources Institute.

Bioenergy’s role in the global economy is growing as governments promote renewable biofuels and biomass electricity to replace fossil fuels. But in recent years, mounting scientific evidence has shown that bioenergy is not, in fact, carbon-neutral: hidden emissions from land-use change actually make it worse than traditional fossil fuels. Given increasing competition for land and the need to reduce carbon emissions, Princeton Research Scholar Tim Searchinger argues that bioenergy is the wrong path.

The fundamental idea behind bioenergy is that it’s carbon-neutral because it releases the carbon that plants absorb when they grow, and thus does not add carbon to the air. Why is this wrong?

It’s a common misunderstanding. Burning biomass of course emits carbon, just like burning fossil fuels. The assumption is that the plant growth to produce that biomass offsets the emissions. But the first requirement for a valid offset, whether for carbon or anything else, is that it is additional. If your employer wants to offset your overtime with vacation, they have to give you additional vacation, not just count the vacation you’ve already earned. Similarly, you can’t count plant growth as an offset if it was occurring anyway. Plant growth can only offset energy emissions if it is additional. Counting plants that would grow anyway is a form of double-counting.

Can you explain more what you mean by double-counting? Plants regrow, so why doesn’t that make them carbon-neutral?

Your paycheck provides a good analogy. Say you get paid every two weeks. You spend your paycheck, and the good news is you’ll get your next paycheck in another two weeks. Ok, so what if I say, “Give me your paycheck. It’s not going to cost you anything because you’ll get another paycheck in two weeks.” Of course, unless you are pretty foolish, you are not going to give me your paycheck because you’re using your paycheck to pay rent, buy food, and perhaps store some money in the bank. Giving me your check therefore comes at a high cost. It’s the same with plant growth and the carbon it absorbs. We use these plants and their carbon for food, housing, or as forests, which are like a carbon bank. The only way for you to get richer in money is to get a bigger paycheck, and the only way to get richer in carbon is to produce more plant growth. Just using plants differently (as in the case of bioenergy) sacrifices using them for another purpose. That’s the fundamental intuitive error people make when it comes to bioenergy.

When did using wood in power plants become a major part of the global energy conversation?

It wasn’t until pretty recently that anyone thought it was a good idea to burn anything other than just waste wood material for electricity. It almost started by accident: what happened was Europe adopted rules that treated any biomass as automatically carbon-free regardless of where it came from. Power plants started buying wood pellets made from whole trees or portions of trees. Forest owners then realized they could make a lot of money and started backing the idea, too. But none of the environmental assessments said it would be good to chop down trees – they were all based on the assumption that the industry would use forest waste.

This is a case where an accounting error gave rise to an industry, which then sought to justify itself. If you talk to the industry today they claim they’re using waste materials, even though it’s not true, it’s just a semantic distinction.

So the biomass industry isn’t actually using waste materials? What are they using?

For something to be a residue, it has to be something that would otherwise be left in the forest and not used for another purpose. That’s a very, very small amount of wood; it’s basically just the tops of branches that are too small and leafy to provide decent wood pulp. Unfortunately, when the industry talks about residues, it’s primarily talking about pulp-quality wood. But if you divert pulpwood to bioenergy, that means you’re going to have to cut down trees for pulp elsewhere.

But what if you grow biomass on marginal lands, where it wouldn’t be displacing primary forest or good agricultural land?

First of all, these so-called “marginal lands” don’t actually exist. The studies claiming that there are large areas of marginal land are doing a related form of double-counting. Many such claims start with an estimate of potential cropland in the world, subtract the amount being used, and call the rest “marginal.” But that includes much of the world’s forest! Other estimates subtract the area of dense forest, but what remains as “marginal” lands are actually wetter grazing lands that are already being used to raise animals for food production, or woodland savannas that are home to enormous biodiversity and large volumes of carbon. That is, in one form or another, they are already providing benefits. If you convert woody savannas to bioenergy you lose a huge amount of carbon. My colleagues and I did a study that found if the wet savannas of Africa were converted even to cellulosic bioenergy, there would be major greenhouse gas consequences for decades on nearly all the land.

Ok, so the problem with bioenergy is that it requires large land areas. What if we just do a small amount of biomass?

Two problems. First, there is always an opportunity cost, since that land could be used instead for food production or storing carbon. Given that we are likely going to have to increase food production by 70 percent or more, productive land is extremely valuable. Using a small amount of that productive land will only get you a small amount of bioenergy, and you lose something worth more in the bargain.

The second problem is that even a small amount of bioenergy requires a huge amount of biomass, and therefore land. For example, if you took all commercial tree harvests in the world today and diverted them for bioenergy, it would only provide about three percent of global energy. That is, to produce just three percent more of the world’s energy, think of all the effects of forestry on the world’s forests, and then double those impacts.

Why do so many studies show a huge potential for bioenergy growth?

The first way is by double-counting land that is already being used either for food, timber, orstoring carbon. The marginal land examples are one way in which that double-counting happens. Beyond that, large bioenergy estimates are based on a theoretical technical potential, which in reality shouldn’t mean very much. There are very few problems in the world that we couldn’t solve if all we cared about was technical potential. I mean, we have the technical potential to educate every person in the world, or to feed everyone nothing but steak three meals a day, or to produce many times our energy demand from wind and solar. But that’s not the issue – what is the realistic potential, facing economic and practical constraints? The truth is the potential for bioenergy is very limited.

How does bioenergy compare to other renewable energy sources?

Biomass produces energy via photosynthesis, which is ultimately a way of converting solar radiation into usable energy. However, photosynthesis is remarkably inefficient and requires land, plenty of rain, and warm temperatures. The good news is that photovoltaics are a dramatically more efficient way of making energy from solar radiation, and they are becoming more efficient and cheaper all the time. We did a calculation that showed that even if you’re foolish enough to use the world’s most productive agricultural land in Brazil for solar PV, you’d still produce on the order of thirty times as much energy as you would get from sugarcane for biofuel. The lesson is, if you want to produce energy from solar radiation, cut out the middleman – a very bad middleman. Photosynthesis is the only way to make energy to feed ourselves, and the only way we can produce trees, but it’s a really lousy way to produce energy.

Is bioenergy a more appealing option in developing countries?

In many parts of the world, poor people use bioenergy (i.e. wood or dung) because they have no other energy options. If all modern bioenergy did was replace this traditional bioenergy with more efficient bioenergy, that would be good. But that’s not what’s happening. Indonesia, for example, wants to expand its use of biodiesel from palm oil, which is a major crop there. From a carbon perspective, though, biofuels are worse than using fossil fuels. Indonesia is the most obvious example, because much of the palm oil is grown on carbon-rich peat forest. While it’s true that Indonesia has some already cut-over forest that could be used to grow palm oil, that oil should go to meet rapidly growing food demand, not biofuel.



What does the IPCC say about the role of bioenergy in climate mitigation?

In the last IPCC report there was a bioenergy group that was asked to contribute to the mitigation section. It included people who are both critical and supportive of bioenergy, and the two groups basically fought themselves to a draw. That compromise, however, still leaves the impression that you can have a lot of bioenergy. For example, if the advocates are claiming you can have 500 exajoules (EJ) of bioenergy per year and the critics say you should have zero, then the middle number they land on is 250 EJ. That is hardly a middle number. It is roughly equal to 100 percent of all the energy in all the crops the world harvests each year, as well as all the timber, all the crop residues, and all the grass eaten by livestock

Has the IPCC’s stance on bioenergy changed over time?

The IPCC report back in 2001 had an estimate that we could produce all human energy from bioenergy, which was based on the error I mentioned earlier about how “potential cropland” is defined. The area they assumed would literally include the entire Amazon and the Congo basin – it’s essentially all of the world’s good land that isn’t already crops. If you make an assumption that land is automatically free, then you end up with bad conclusions.

What about “third-generation” biofuels made from algae? Could they solve the land problem?

It would be great if the world could produce algae efficiently, but it is not going to be a significant source of energy. When you actually look at the amount of water, nitrogen, and even land that algae will require, even with optimistic estimates, it is still a lot. Even supposing we can produce algae cheaply enough, we wouldn’t want to burn it. Algae produce a high protein feed that could be used as an animal feed or as oils for aquaculture feeds. Using algae for biofuel would be like burning meat!

Why do you think some scientists still advocate for bioenergy?

One reason is that it would be much easier to solve climate change if there were very large quantities of free land or carbon-free biomass sitting around just waiting to be used. Another is that science got caught in this double-counting error, and it takes a while to get rid of it. Even though nobody denies the double-counting problem anymore, new arguments have arisen. For example, some scientific biofuel enthusiasts claim that we can produce vastly more food on vastly less land, and should then use the remainder for bioenergy. Unfortunately, that’s very unlikely to happen, but even if it were, we should wait to see this free land before dedicating it to bioenergy. And even in that case, we would still be much better off allowing that land to reforest and using solar energy on dry land to produce our energy.

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  1. blert

    What kills me is that the high prices paid for corn — so as to make motor grade ethanol — are DIRECTLY responsible for the food riots// civil upheavals across the MENA.

    I predicted the upheavals — on the Internent — before any national pundit — way back in early 2010.

    High productivity societies are OUT BIDDING the Third World for its food.

    The US and Red China are the dominant swing factors.

    For America it’s corn to fuel — an insanity.

    For Red China it’s corn to pigs — at least that makes sense.

    The US, Canada, Australia are the ‘OPEC’ of corn// feed grains// protein.

    If these three powers were to embargo their food, one to two billion souls would immediately begin to starve. Good policy is a tremendous responsibility.

    Carbon dioxide is being massively absorbed by the world ocean. It can do so for centuries. Yes, it’s that unsaturated.

    The shell fish are begging us to burn more coal. [Heh]

    Most of the world’s carbon is fixed as LIMESTONE, not coal.

    c.f. White cliffs of Dover.

    1. Jef

      blert (aptly named as that describes the amount of consideration that went into your comment) – You are wrong on most of your points but particularly about oceans and shell fish. The ocean is becoming so polluted that it is reducing its carbon uptake and can soon become an emitter. The oceans are warming up to the point that massive methane leaks are sprouting up all over. Ocean acidity is dissolving calcium at an increasing rate making it harder for shellfish.

      The ocean will eventually become a carbon sink once it becomes so acidic that a good portion of our oceans will be covered with algae choking out all other life forms as happened a few millions of years ago. It will then settle to the bottom of the ocean and eventually get buried under, compressed and cooked, and turned into oil deposits just like before. Then if there is anyone around by then they can dig it up and burn it all over again just like before.

      1. blert

        Carbon dioxide partial pressures at this time are at near all time lows — on a geological time scale.

        Shellfish suck, suck, suck down carbonate at a phenomenal rate — or there would NEVER be the massive limestone beds across the planet.

        That includes marble, too.

        While coal seams — globally — are staggering, they are over matched by limestone beds. Britain and most of Europe sits atop a massive limestone deposit thicker than any coal seam known.

        You have your theories.

        I have my eyes.

        And, no, the good Lord did not lay down all of that limestone in six days.

        Do not inflate the ability of acid to attack limestone. Living shellfish overwhelm that tempo with calcium carbonate capture, plainly.

      2. thefutureisowls

        sea level rise + erosion + algae blooms = shallow seas full of dead algae being trapped in sediment. Too bad all the climate negative feedback loops play out over eons while the positive ones hit in decades…

        1. blert

          The world ocean can’t rise much further.

          1) Floating ice — when it melts — can’t raise the level of the water.

          This is true in a cocktail glass — a beaker — and the Polar Ocean.

          The ONLY remaining source of ice melt that could raise the mean level of the world ocean must be above water, on land, yet low enough in altitude to melt.

          Meaning that the opening sequence in the film “Waterworld” is hillariously wrong.

          The few remaining super glaciers are impervious to a mild rise in temperatures. ( Greenland, Antarctica )

          The ancient shallow seas that are evidenced by the geological record do not now exist — anywhere. Yeap. Conditions now are drastically different.

          Starting with: current carbon dioxide partial pressures are at practically the extreme low evidenced in the geological record.

          It took drastically higher carbon dioxide fractions to produce the staggering limestone beds and coal seams found everywhere.

          Plants and shell fish are virtually starving for carbon dioxide.

          When exposed to elevated levels, plants grow something crazy.

          Their energy capture efficiency explodes upwards.

          This reality has been repeatedly discovered in a laboratory setting, first by NASA, now by bio-diesel genetics engineers.

          Suddenly the source of the coal seams and limestone pulls into view.

          BTW, the oceans are known to absorb carbon dioxide — something crazy.

          Coke and Pepsi could show you just how easily carbon dioxide stays dissolved under pressure. Any carbon dioxide that migrates down to the depths — is chemically stable there — indefinately.

          1. Yves Smith Post author

            Your remark on “floating ice” shows you don’t begin to have a grip on this topic.

            Huge pieces of the Antarctic Ice shelf are shearing off and falling into the ocean. That ice formerly sat on the land. It most assuredly WILL raise ocean levels. Ditto Greenland. And if you’ve ever seen glaciers calve in Alaska, the ice there is similarly not “floating”.

            The fact that you don’t even get the most basic facts about what is at issue says you need to do LOT more homework before opining further.

            1. blert

              What’s huge to us is tiny to the planet.

              And, of course, as the (land) ice slides into the ocean…

              It’s replaced by fresh precipitation.

              In every way the dynamic is but a slow motion version of rainfall in the Sierras making its way to the Pacific.

              During the Ice Ages, the glaciers were MILES high — all they way down to the 47th parallel — with mega ice all around the mountains at lower latitudes.

              They are all gone. The impressive snow that we now see is but a dusting on the surface compared to what once was.

              It’s difficult for us to comprehend that we are living at an extremum of the geological record. It’s an extremum previously seen during the height of ancient Rome and Greece, hence the toga.

              2,000 years ago, no-one was running around projecting FURTHER increases in temperature. They couldn’t measure it in the first place.

              We’re not that much advanced. MOST of our decent records only go back 50 years. That’s it. It took the space age — and weather satelites — and cold war budgets — and digital computers — for any decent global weather record keeping.

              Having weather figures from only Europe or North America just don’t meet our scientific requirements.

      1. blert

        Civil rights in Red China are still nil.

        The CCP is still in the saddle.

        They are as obsessed as ever.

        Just ask Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Philipines, Australia…

        It’s often a challenge to even get top executives freed. ( Australian iron ore magnate jailed… the Commies didn’t like his pricing ! )

  2. Bill Smith

    “DIRECTLY responsible for the food riots// civil upheavals”

    Maybe it was the poor response of the government to the drought? Or 70 years of suppression of the people? Lots of things contributed directly to the problems.

    1. blert


      The Tunisian food riot that morphed into a revolution was triggered by the price of food.

      Of that, there is no doubt.

      Before the surge in corn prices — which led to consequences elsewhere in the grains complex — everything was very steady, price wise.

      Then… pop.

      Such turmoil is always based upon recent events.

      It took the Redcoats marching on Concord to get the Revolutionary War rolling.

  3. Paul Tioxon

    “Biomass produces energy via photosynthesis, which is ultimately a way of converting solar radiation into usable energy. However, photosynthesis is remarkably inefficient and requires land, plenty of rain, and warm temperatures. The good news is that photovoltaics are a dramatically more efficient way of making energy from solar radiation, and they are becoming more efficient and cheaper all the time.”

    As Mr. Searchinger points out, solar radiation is the source of biomass energy. The sun is the direct source of energy that bathes the Earth with more energy in an hour than we use in a year. Cannibalizing the Earth and burning it to produce energy is pointless in the face of the infinite supply from the Sun which we can now cheaply commercialize and only gets cheaper and cheaper as there is only the cost to fabricate harvesting technology with no fuel costs what so ever. The Sun is free from rent, the sun is beyond the reach of commodification and falls upon the rich and poor nations alike. This shift to solar power completes the heliocentric view of nature, where we no longer look to the immediate surroundings as the point of origin of what can power humanity beyond its meager abilities held by the labor energy on one person multiplied by how ever many people we produce to populate the world. The Earth is not the center of the universe and it is also not the source of a vast store of energy to power Civilization.

    The forests as well as the oceans are a part of the ecology that places carbon in a balanced proportion allowing for the biosphere to function to the point that our civilization can function. The forests are not biomass commodities for profit and burning is not an energy producer, but a chemical transformation. This is another process that under scientific observation proves to be dangerous as well as pointless once we realize and accept that the sun was meant to be the source of life and energy and destroying the elements of the biosphere by fire is nothing more than an apocalyptic Dies Irae. If the Earth is to cleanse itself from humanity, this is how it will come, by fire.

    1. KingTut

      The central problem with biofuels is that living organisms do not exist to store energy. They exist to perpetuate themselves; to grow and reproduce. Their primary product is information, not energy.
      This leaves most plants at 1-2% efficiency, with a few coming in at near 3%. And that’s before the second biological process: fermentation with the required distilling & refining. With ordinary solar cells at 10%, and high efficiency versions at 20%+, there is really no contest.
      The supposedly more efficient algae farms have all kinds of problems, requiring growing tanks, water supplies, nutrients and of course the usual refining and processing infra-structure and operating costs. It’s worth mentioning that the Butanol they would produce freezes at moderately low temperatures typical in the USA.
      The one exception is mother nature’s preferred bio-fuel: methane. She produces huge amounts of it in all kinds of eco-systems from perma-frost to jungles. Methane is natures way of getting rid of excess hydrogen. That she doesn’t produce free hydrogen gas is a good indicator that we probably shouldn’t either. Methane bio-fuel is economically captured and used in landfills, sewage treatment plants and dairy farms. Yet, few people even mention it.
      However, the idea that solar energy will always be free is stupid. Early solar farms have benefitted from subsidies and unused land. Once the sentimentality has worn off, large amounts of land used for solar will certainly incur ‘royalties’, much like natural gas wells do now. However, it’s universal avaialbility will hopefully reduce energy conflict inthe world. Not a big fan of the USA’s blood for oil foreign policy. Nearly every country has access; Germany is a terrible place for solar energy, yet it has the largest solar capacity.

      1. blert

        Research into bio-diesel fuel production via algae has proved that energy capture increases by leaps and bounds when carbon dioxide is fed to the hydroponic solution.

        NASA noted the same thing fifty-years ago when studies were launched WRT recycling astronaut food waste… and oxygen recovery.

        Still, the point is made.

        The exotic rigs used to study algae in a laboratory will never morph into energy factories any time soon… if ever.

        PV arrays look like a much, much, better bet.

  4. craazyboy

    I guess some people are slowly realizing it’s a bad idea to burn your food supply or to light your house on fire to heat it. That’s good, I think. We should be thankful this enlightenment is slowly spreading across the land. Tho I was disappointed Obama renewed the GWB corn ethanol subsidy a few years back when it finally ran out.

    But the interesting segment of biofuels is in genetically modified algae (we don’t even need to eat it) where you don’t divert farmland and potable water and it really is carbon neutral, because you are adding an additional carbon sink by growing it.

    It is even more attractive in the big picture, because it can satisfy our liquid fuel needs without requiring that we come up with electric transportation and the associated problems with electric energy storage (battery tech that is woefully inadequate – even after working on battery tech for more that a hundred years – no Moore’s Law there!) and the need to carpet the world in solar panels and melt all that glass to make them. Then we can just make electricity for stuff that really needs electricity.

  5. Eric Patton

    Sooner or later, we are going to have to face the fact that we cannot continue our current levels of consumption. We cannot continue to have a private enterprise market economy, if we want to also have a human race.

    1. blert

      You haven’t seen waste until the government is put in charge.

      I give you the oil infrastructure of Baku under the Soviets. ‘Twas a fright.

      The problem was government — not the Soviets.

      See also Nigeria, right now.

      It’s government policies that permit chronic abuse of the pipelines there.

      Economic efficiency is NEVER a priority in any government — and at any level.

      It does make for good conversation, though.

  6. Norb

    Realizing that our lifestyles are insane would be a good start- not desperately searching for a scheme that would keep the current party going.

    The amount of waste in every aspect of current western life is staggering. But waste is what drives the capitalist engine. Nothing will be solved as long as every problem is viewed through the capitalist lens of profit seeking.

    There are numerous pathways that prolong the current system, but as is pointed out over and over again, a system designed to exhaust the local environment has only one eventual outcome on a finite planet- collapse.

    What is needed is a spiritual awakening. A spiritual connection to the natural environment based on sustaining and promoting life instead of destroying it.

    1. optimader

      Realizing that our lifestyles are insane
      I don’t consider my lifestyle “insane”

      The amount of waste in every aspect of current western life is staggering.
      just “western life”?

      But waste is what drives the capitalist engine
      As opposed to what alternative economic system?

      What is needed is a spiritual awakening. A spiritual connection to the natural environment based on sustaining and promoting life instead of destroying it.
      yes, well add Whirled Peas and you have some excellent aspirations, now if you could suggest some flesh on those aspirations, or are the pesky details for someone else to sort out?

    2. blert

      You ought to phone Beijing.

      The abuse of the environment there — and themselves — is a fright.

      And… the authorities there crack down on any moral revival.

      You would too if you were an atheist.

  7. Vatch

    The author is mistaken about the greenhouse implications of biofuels, although there are several significant problems with using biofuels. First, the problems:

    1. Biofuels cause pollution other than carbon dioxide, and these pollutants cause lung disease and other problems.
    2. Most biofuels are not very efficient. It takes almost as much energy (perhaps even more energy in some cases) to grow, harvest, and process the biofuels.
    3. Instead of growing biofuels, we should be growing food. Biofuel agriculture has an effect on food supply and prices.

    Why is the author wrong about the greenhouse implications of biofuels? Because the use of biofuels does not add to the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Forest fires occur naturally, and they don’t add to the net level of greenhouse gases. Plants decay, which releases carbon dioxide, and that doesn’t add to the net level of greenhouse gases Growing plants then absorb that carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The same process occurs when the carbon dioxide is emitted by burning biofuels. Using biofuels doesn’t alter the natural carbon cycle.

    The problem with fossil fuels is that burning them releases carbon (usually as carbon dioxide) that has been segregated from the natural cycles for hundreds of millions of years. This process really does change the net levels of greenhouse gases in our biosphere, and it is a huge problem.

    1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

      That’ a good point, though I wonder what the natural recurrence interval for forest fires is vs. annual release of carbon when, say, corn is harvest and used as fuel.

      Would it be like 100 years (for the same forest to burn) vs. one year?

      Does it matter? I think so. If this forest is not due to release fire-induced carbon for another 50 years, and we will be release carbon every year for the next 50 critical years, with some re-absorption by the crop the following year.

      1. bob

        To give an idea of the scale of forests-

        massive forest fire in northern Quebec. People were smelling the smoke in DC.


        That was also followed, the following year, with a rather large earthquake in the same area. Large for eastern North America standards. Most quakes in the NE are reflexive quakes, the earth is still rebounding, and “pushing out” from the glaciers that covered the area, not so long ago, in geologic terms.

        The weight of that forest was probably (maybe, at least?) billions of Tons. Vaporized. Lots of weight gone, into the atmosphere, suddenly. Then an earthquake pushing the earth out.

        It’s become a theme. Almost the same thing- fire, then quake, happened just a few years ago, on a smaller scale, and further south in QC on the border with Ontario. Few live there, so not much press on any of this, beyond the local stories of people who were calling 911 in NYC and Boston because they thought the neighbors house was on fire.

        Nah, it’s just canada.

        I’ve also never seen any press on the fires, and the quakes, being related.

          1. bob

            Two very different places.

            Pretty much all of indonisia is very seismically active. Volcanoes, plates crashing, etc. What happens above ground amounts to not much more than noise there.

            The QC area is seismically extremely boring, very boring. All the activity there would be considered noise in Indonesian term.

          2. different clue

            Canada was under a 1-2 mile-deep layer of ice. That weighed enough to push that part of the continent “down” into the mantle upon which the crust floats. When that ice-weight was removed, the previously ice-capped crust could start floating ( and unbending) back “up”. I think Bob is suggesting that removing that much weight of trees in a fire could also lighten the weight on the land enough that the land would float further “up”.

            Since Indonesia was never under ice, it was never pushed down by an ice-cap weight. Would burning off forest from land that was never pushed down by ice be enough to let that land float “up” anyway? If so, the same logic would apply.

  8. Jef

    When forests are taken down to grow biofuels then biofuels DO add to the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

    When forest fires burn larger because of forests die-off due to climate change and then do not grow back that too adds to the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

    Both of these things are happening at an exponential rate.

    1. Vatch

      When forests are taken down to grow biofuels then biofuels DO add to the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

      Only temporarily. The amount of carbon circulating in the biosphere does not change. But when fossil fuels are burned, the increase in greenhouse gases is persistent, and the amount of carbon circulating in the biosphere does increase.

      Of course, Praedor’s comment below about the use of fossil fuels to grow and harvest biofuels is quite accurate. The energy for producing biofuels should only come from biofuels or other renewable energy sources. Fossil fuels should never be used for this.

      1. KingTut

        Not in Brazil. They cut down forests (and use the wood), to grow sugar cane for ethanol. They can do the distilling with the refuse from the sugar cane plant. Only one problem after 2-3 years they have to use fertilizer to keep it going, and the economics (and eco-nomics) go away. So they just cut down more forest.
        All the carbon in that bio-mass ends up in the atmosphere. Sequestered carbon, whether it’s 100 years old or 1,000,000 still adds to the atmosphere when it’s no longer locked up in bio-mass or undergorund.
        Creating bio-fuels seems free because you plant a seed and come back in year and you have high energy bio-mass out of ‘nowhere’. But you inevitably have to cultivate, and that changes eveything. It consumes lots of captial, water, energy and changes the soil, not to mention the herbicides, fertilizers, insecticides etc. BTW: yeast produces CO2 that adds to the CO2 output without adding to the energy. Bio-fuels have lots of deceptive issues.

        1. Vatch

          I agree with you about Brazil and Amazonia. Some forests should not be cut down, whether for fuel, construction materials, or pulp for paper. If there weren’t so many people on Earth, there would be less demand for energy, homes, offices, furniture, and paper.

      2. optimader

        your right (of course) Vatch. I think the easiest way to conceptualize it is as a “control volume”, a basic thermodynamics tool. Draw the circle around the biosphere then look at all the inputs and outputs over a time frame. People tend to think on a human time frame scale. Consider a simple mental experiment.
        –All biofuel from “switch grass”: grows to maturity in a year, process into fuel, burn, the carbon cycle is ~ a couple years
        –All biofuel from trees: these tree happen to take 100years to grow to mature ( for this mental exercise), process into fuel burn, the carbon cycle is ~ a 100years

        all biofuel is coal: coal takes a few million years to covert biomass into carbon, process into fuel, burn, the carbon cycle is ~ a few million years.

        the switch grass model will seem unbalanced if the view is six months, the tree model will seem unbalanced if the view is 25 years and the coal model will seem unbalanced if the view is 100,000years(which is plenty of time to put the hurt on homo sapiens.

        A fundamental issue is where will the phosphate come from to make the “carbon vehicle” grow? The input/output doesn’t balance in the long term based on known sources.

  9. Praedor

    It is NOT “double counting”. It is no net gain (of CO2 in theory) if plants consume 1 ton of CO2 to grow and they are destined to produce fuel that, when used, will releast 1 ton of CO2, then it IS neutral. There is no net gain. The author is talking about CO2 REDUCTION, and in that case you DO need to produce LESS CO2 than is absorbed to grow. Of course, biofuel is NOT actually CO2-neutral only because of the energy required (CO2 released) to produce it (producing fertilizer – though this is NOT needed in organic farming where waste – livestock or human sewage – is the fertilizer) is used as the fertilizer, the energy used to plant, spray, harvest the crop). Biofuel is a bad idea for this reason and for the required destruction of wildlife habitat from converting good habitat into dead land for crops only. There’s a huge water waste too.

  10. Carolinian

    Last night I watched the DVD Merchants of Doubt which makes a persuasive case that climate denial is an extensive PR operation being run by the fossil fuel companies and politicians looking for a wedge issue against the left. The movie makes it clear that climate debates–as seen by the right– are just a proxy for the right’s long march against socialism.

    The problem for the left is that the rightwingers are right. The biofuels boondoggle illustrates how painless solutions aren’t going to work and may indeed be environmentally destructive as southern US forests are being cut down or turned into tree farms to supply pulp to Europeans pretending to be climate friendly. Because the left isn’t willing to make the radical admission that capitalism itself is the enemy they keep offering these band-aid solutions–cap and trade another–that aren’t going to help. And even if we in the US were to greatly reduce our emissions that still wouldn’t address the 3rd world where people are more worried about having something to eat than about the future climate.

    All of which is to say this is a political issue, not a science issue. The right understands that and are zealously if deceptively acting accordingly. If the left wants to turn this around they may have to become radicals themselves.

  11. susan the other

    Too bad we can’t just slam everything in reverse. Instead of basing our need for energy on creating heat which in turn creates pressure to push things forward or around in circles, why can’t we invent the opposite? A form of pressure, or probably vacuum, that is based on cold and pulls things? And fills the atmosphere with a blanket of cold. Nevermind.

  12. craazyboy

    Here’s a bio-engineered algae R&D company. They have developed strains which actually can excrete ethanol, bio-diesel and kerosene(jet fuel). The “crop” stays alive and their fuel “excrement” is siphoned off. They can use non-potable or brackish water. They have a pilot demo plant in N.M. running for a couple years now. They believe they can do it for equal to or less than current fuel prices. Audi is one of the investors. Worth watching, tho R&D companies have a high mortality rate on the way to commercialization.


  13. Roland

    Here in British Columbia, the use of wood to generate electrictiy has been made advantageous by the amount of forest that was devastated by a severe and widespread infestation of the Mountain Pine Beetle. Beetle-killed trees cover thousands of square kilometres. The dead trees are drying out, and are going to burn in any case–in massive forest fires. Harvesting them for electricity is a way to get some human use of out of all that extra carbon that is heading for the atmosphere.

    We tried to get as much timber value as we could from all those beetle-killed trees, but the quality of the wood deteriorates after a couple of years of standing dead. Besides, there wasn’t enough world demand for the lumber.

  14. Deloss

    Gosh, this guy sounds like a Conservative. Ask any Conservative about global warming or gun control and his/her answer usually contains the arguments “It’s too difficult,” “It won’t do any good,” and “It can’t be done.”

    I agree that it makes no sense to cut down the forests, which suck up lots of carbon dioxide. But people already cut down forests to graze cattle to grow beef for McDonald’s, and we shouldn’t have that either.

    If you look at the corn and soybean markets, you will find it hard to believe that there’s a food shortage, at least there isn’t one this year. Yes, people are starving to death–and no, I don’t like that–but it’s because they can’t get to food, and nobody’s bringing food to them. Even in this country, where nobody should go hungry, Republicans are constantly trying to stop people from getting food stamps (aka SNAP).

    Now I must stop and give money to City Harvest. This darned post made me think about it. I hope everybody will give money to NC.

    1. blert

      You are corn fused.

      Republican states are farm states — corn growing states.

      You NEVER see Republicans voting against the farmer.

      That’s why the political logic stuffed the Food Stamp program inside the Department of Agriculture.

      As for throttling Food Stamps — it’s been on an exponential rise for YEARS.

      It has bi-partisan support. It’s untouchable.

      Urban politicians find that they have to (choke) vote Yes for the agricultural payola — to secure more Food Stamp funding.

      It’s more sacred than Social Security !

      As for its administration — that’s handled by Democrats.

      The financial contract let to administer it is with Chase — a known Democrat bastion HQ’d in Democrat Manhattan, in Democrat New York City, in Democrat New York State.

      That’s political reality. And no-one is even attempting to change it.

      However did you conjure up your nostrum ?

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