Two papers in the journal Science last week weighed in on the biofuels debate (that would be the raging debate about whether they're a good thing for the environment and society). In a nutshell, the studies conclude that using biofuels instead of gas won’t necessarily reduce greenhouse gases — and may actually increase emissions in some cases.


From the article penned by Timothy Searchinger and others:

Using a worldwide agricultural model to estimate emissions from land use change, we found that corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20% savings, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years. Biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on U.S. corn lands, increase emissions by 50%.

And Joseph Fargione and colleagues found:

Converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands to produce food-based biofuels in Brazil, Southeast Asia, and the United States creates a ‘biofuel carbon debt’ by releasing 17 to 420 times more CO2 than the annual greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions these biofuels provide by displacing fossil fuels.

Don’t fret, though. The take-home lesson here is not that all biofuels are bad — it’s that not all biofuels are equal. Environmentally responsible biofuels might come from biomass waste (like beer by-products!) or feedstock (preferably, Fargione et al say, diverse mixtures of native grassland perennials — they’re good for wildlife and the environment) grown on abandoned, degraded agricultural land.

Instead of rushing headlong into biofuels, we’d like to see legislators step up and outlaw the use of productive cropland to grow biofuel feedstock. And, since we’ve got a wish-list going, if government incentives are going to be given, we’d like to see those go to folks who use a waste product or degraded land.

What do you think? If you need some time to mull it over, why not sip some ale while you do so? After all, there’s nothing wrong with doing your part to generate some biomass waste.

Story by Alisa Opar. This article originally appeared in Plenty in February 2008. The story was added to

Copyright Environ Press 2008

Biofuel dilemma
Are biofuels bad?