Trees instead of ethanol...
It didn't take long for the debate on biofuels to heat up again, despite the bottom-of-the-barrel price of oil and an economy in the drink. This time, it was a study published in the February issue of Science that said corn-based ethanol could add nearly twice as many greenhouse emissions as fossil fuels. Not to be left out, the California State Regulators, among others, have jumped into the fray and now seem ready to declare that biofuel will not help reduce global warming.
Ironically, this could wind up as some very good news for the forest products industry. Specifically, the production of biofuel from cellulosic biomass, such as wood, is increasingly being seen as one of the best solutions for developing alternative fuels.
The debate recently, and the Science study in particular, centers around the land-use required for growing corn and other food crops for biofuel production. While "green" fuels, such as corn ethanol, burn cleaner than petroleum fuels and emit less carbon dioxide, this is only half of the story. When the entire life-cycle is taken into account, including the land used for growing the feedstock and the energy required in harvesting and fuel production, the total "biofuel carbon debt" becomes prohibitive.
The alternative use of the land, growing a forest for example, as the study says, provides a much better carbon balance sheet for the environment. Because not only the trees, but the land itself, provide ongoing carbon sequestration for decades. These conclusions seem to indicate that biofuel produced from cellulosic biomass, such as wood and sugarcane, where the land is not cleared or razed, would incur far less carbon debt. However, this study is focused on corn-based ethanol and did not take cellulosic biofuel in its calculations.
These conclusions were not lost on others. Bloggers and politicians alike climbed on the bandwagon to decry the use of corn for biofuel. Many used Earth Day to further the calls, promoting "No Biofuel from Food Crops" and other slogans to gain attention. The California proposal is especially crucial, but not at the expense where we abandon biofuel research and production altogether.
Scientific researchers and economists alike have pointed out the no-win situation involved in continuing to look at fossil fuels for our global energy needs. The US alone is considering increasing its mandatory ethanol percentage in gasoline from 10% to 15%. Europe has also mandated its initiatives for increasing its biofuel use, limiting their reliance on petroleum. Turning back the clock and declaring biofuels a dead-end is foolhardy.
Reducing the use of corn-based biofuel is the right call. Its energy price tag was always in question, calculating the amount of energy needed by conventional fuels to produce corn ethanol. Further loss in our ability to sequester carbon, and cut our greenhouse gasses, is not an option.
As regulators look to assess the full climate impact of biofuel, let's hope they recognize the obvious: the only sensible alternative is to promote further research and development of cellulosic biomass as a profitable and environmentally-positive second-generation biofuel.
Issued by: RISI
Author: Kenneth Norris, Deputy Editor, IFPTA Journal
Issue date: April 23, 2009
Link to Article: Drop the corn and plant more trees