Biofuel farms make CO2 emissions worse

From today’s Guardian:

US researchers calculated that converting natural ecosystems to grow corn or sugarcane to produce ethanol, or palms or soybeans for biodiesel, could release between 17 and 420 times more carbon than the annual savings from replacing fossil fuels.

This is due to the carbon contained in the original plants and soils which is released as CO2 when the vegetation rots after it is cleared. The researchers said this carbon debt must be paid before biofuels produced on the land could count towards reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

In Indonesia the researchers found that converting land for palm oil production ran up the worst carbon debts, requiring 423 years to pay off. Producing soybeans in the Amazon would take 319 years of soy biodiesel to offset the carbon debt.

Honestly, I wouldn’t have thought people needed this explained to them. Carbon is emitted anyway – our problem is emitting it so bloody quickly, burning things. It’s still emitted as nature dies and breaks down. Burning out or otherwise clearing land for biofuels is most certainly going to convert living matter to dead matter – releasing all its stored carbon in the process.

Getting back to the article, we see that markets are at the heart of the problem – and the solution:

Stephen Polasky of the University of Minnesota, one of the authors of the study, published today in the journal Science, 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.”

Palm oil is a horrendous product. An interview with the primary author can be found over at nature.org.

So what happened? Basically, the pressure to establish a market to counteract the non-market externalities of energy-generation (including the use of oil, but we’ll lump all fossil fuels together – why not?) has given us a market that itself has non-market externalities. The solution? Austrian Economists, where are you when we need you? There are two arguments:

First, this would seem to indicate that the pressure to establish “solutions” is, potentially, doing more harm than good. Perhaps we need to back the hell up. Does a bull ever have good luck in a china shop? We need to ease off, sit down and realise that accuracy over speed will be what saves the planet in the long run.

We need to give more consideration to the sorts of market mechanisms we would like to use to overcome the tragedy of the commons (the depletion of fossil fuels: it is the intensity of this depletion that is both leading to things like Peal Oil as well as creating the condition for so-called Catastrophic Climate Change (I say “so-called” because it is a term of art, not because I dis-believe the sentiment)).

Second, or alternatively, we need to plow ahead, tacking markets onto markets onto markets. I’ve no doubt that throwing market incentives into this market to deal with the follow-on environmental costs will probably generate another set of unintended outcomes – it always does. This argument would base its urgency upon the urgency of the problem, and the absence of time to wait.

I favour the first, personally – or a variation thereof. When we make certain crops highly valued, that incentive will overcome most others – how do you think these problems arose in the first place? Farmers in middle-income countries don’t consider their contribution to the global problem (anymore than first-world agriculturalists): they respond to the enormous difference the market will make to their household income. Once those trees are gone, however, they’re gone – land cannot be un-burnt (trust me: I’m Australian). Reclaiming and de-pastorialising land takes a bloody long time.

Mostly, I take this as more evidence that biofuels are shit. We aren’t trying to ‘fix’ our energy problem: we’re trying to stay behind the wheels of our cars as long as possible. The reason I think we need to step back and reconsider is because the problem we’re trying to solve is such a narrow and self-interested one.

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1 comment so far

  1. Monetary Buzz on

    Something must be done. This will turn good to bad 😦


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