Wrong Question: Can Biofuels Be Carbon Friendly?

The Science Insider blog last week hosted an interesting debate between Tim Searchinger, Princeton visiting scholar, and John Sheehan, of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, regarding the recent policy proposal in the pages of Science by Searchinger et al. to “fix” the carbon accounting of biomass for bioenergy and biofuels in U.S. legislation and the successor to the Kyoto protocol, by giving credit only to biomass that can be managed in such a way as to sequester additional atmospheric carbon in the soil. As Searchinger puts it in the recent debate, “bioenergy only reduces greenhouse gases if it results from additional plant growth or in some other way uses carbon that would not otherwise be stored.”

To be sure, use of bioenergy can only reduce the overall level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by sequestering carbon in the soil (in root systems). And yes, individual biofuel or bioenergy producers could use only new biomass that has recently pulled carbon from the atmosphere (although other environmentalists may differ on that) or biomass that would otherwise be left to decay and emit the stored carbon anyway. The question then is whether there is enough of this type of biomass to meet energy needs.

But that is not the point of the current Kyoto protocol or of U.S. cap-and-trade legislation. Their shared goal is to reduce overall GHG emissions, over time, ideally lowering the cap until emissions reach equilibrium.

Searchinger cites recent modeling studies to say that not employing his fix to global carbon accounting “would lead to the loss of most of the world’s natural forest because clearing those forests for bioenergy becomes one of the cost-effective means of complying with laws to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” However, the fossil fuel industries are certain to receive allowances under the U.S. legislation. Employing a carbon accounting model that treats biomass as equivalent to fossil fuel would definitely make continued reliance on fossil fuel the cost-effective alternative.

Another interesting response to the Searchinger et al article comes from Geoff Styles of the Energy Collective, who extends the carbon accounting argument to electric vehicles. All alternative energy sources can be opened up to particular scrutiny. What is needed is a truly accurate and balanced accounting of fossil fuel use to compare these arguments.

The only other political option would be to drastically cut use of all energy. Models do project that the current worldwide economic recession has brought about a reduction in climate emissions by cutting energy use.

Searchinger does note that biomass and biofuels have the potential to balance greenhouse gas emissions – depending on land management. A better question here is whether his models can show that fossil fuel use also has the potential to balance greenhouse gas emissions with proper land management.

5 Responses

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Scott McCullough. Scott McCullough said: Wrong Question: Can Biofuels Be Carbon Friendly?: The Science Insider blog last week hosted an interesting deba.. http://bit.ly/4tmPZc […]

  2. Searchinger’s debate partner agreed that we need this “fix:”

    “I can state without qualification that I agree with the premise of Tim’s recent article that there is a major flaw in current and proposed accounting systems for carbon.”

    Electric cars are a case of which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Should we wait for low carbon electricity before building electric cars, and will electric cars create a demand for low carbon electricity? It is a moot point because, from a global warming perspective, if we don’t get rid of coal, it won’t matter what you drive.

    “…whether his models can show…”

    They are not all his models. Attempts to single out and make an example out of one researcher by publicly denigrating him is starting to backfire. This isn’t a one man show, not by any stretch of the imagination:

    “..Roughly a dozen major scientific assessments have now noted that because any use of productive land to produce biofuels has a high risk of creating large emissions through land-use change, we shouldn’t be pursuing that route. Among these studies are those by our National Academy of Sciences, SCOPE, a special U.K. government review of biofuels called the Gallagher Report, Dutch reviews, and studies by the Joint Research Centre of the European Union.”

  3. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by Farm_Investment: Wrong Question: Can Biofuels Be Carbon Friendly?: The Science Insider blog last week hosted an interesting deba.. http://bit.ly/4tmPZc

  4. Integration and Displacement – The New Look of Biofuels

    This claim by Searchinger is not entirely true: “bioenergy only reduces greenhouse gases if it results from additional plant growth or in some other way uses carbon that would not otherwise be stored.” This is over-simplification.

    Biofuels have a big environmental impact, because they displace fossil fuels. Recycled CO2 replaces newly mined carbon – carbon that would have been added CO2 to the atmosphere when fossil fuels are burned. Biofuel displaces newly mined Carbon with recycled CO2. Biofuels do Not have to sequester carbon into the soil to be effective. Biofuels mitigate fossil fuels. They can also be integrated to exploit waste and mitigate pollution.

    If we took ALL the starch, instead of just 25% of it, from our entire feed corn crop and made ethanol out of it. This would Displace 4 times the amount of fossil fuels we are currently displacing with ethanol. We are already growing the corn anyway. There would be No additional plant growth. Currently most of this excess starch is going through animals undigested, and then going to waste as methane GHG.

    See “Bion Environmental Technologies Plans Closed-Loop Livestock and Ethanol Production Facility in Schroeppel, NY” (Biofuels Joiurnal 12-14-09). This is a proposed large-scale livestock feeding operation that will be a game changer. The methane – normally released from cattle manure – will provide CHP production power for the ethanol plant. This mitigates GHG methane. And it also displaces the newly mined carbon released from the natural gas or coal, which is typically used to power ethanol refineries. Those carbon credits are spread across the ethanol and the co-products produced by the refinery.

    The distillers grains are not shipped to China, they are fed to the onsite or adjacent cattle. You didn’t burn dirty bunker fuel to ship it half way around the world. So adjacent use of distillers grains also improves the carbon score of biofuel. Surplus electrical power will also be fed into the grid, displacing coal and natural gas.

    The digester residue, leftover after the manure is processed, becomes “localized fertilizer” made from waste. That displaces centralized fossil fuel based fertilizer that would normally be shipped regionally, using fossil fuels. So credit the ethanol plant with another by product that displaces fossil fuels and newly mined carbon.

    The option would be to take the waste effluent and grow adjacent algae or duckweed on it. This can also be grown heterotrophically in high rise or underground tanks, for the small footprint. The algae/duckweed becomes an onsite resource of oil-carbohydrate-protein feedstock. The oil is made into localized biodiesel displacing fossil fuel diesel to grow the corn. The algae/duckweed starch is more ethanol feedstock. And the protein becomes a complete amino acid feed supplement for the cattle or for other livestock.

    Biofuel co-products are also feedstock for nutriceuticals and bio-plastics. We are now also exploiting the corn cobs and stover into additional fuel. One company is making biomass brickettes out of cobs and stover as a drop-in replacement for coal. This credit spreads across the corn inputs which can also improve the carbon score of ethanol. There was no additional plant growth. There was no sequestration of carbon into the soil. All we did was exploit waste into a value added product to displace fossil fuel.

    Besides integrating ethanol with producing cattle, we are also using this model to integrate biofuel and dairy, biofuel and poultry, biofuel and hogs, etc. This is going to give you a much better ratio of energy in to energy out. It will also increase efficiency and profit, and lower the cost of both the ethanol, the food products, and other co-products.

    Searchinger’s background is Attorney, Lobbyist, Political-Environmental Activist, and Biofuels Critic. His skill-set on the economics of biofuels is limited and narrow. Where he falls short is Displacement and Integration.

    Primarily, biofuels and their co-products displace newly mined carbon with recycled CO2. In addition, the integration of biofuels with agriculture and power generation – exploits waste products and mitigates other pollutants – such as methane, sulfurous compounds, black carbon soot, and acid rain, etc.. Biofuel integration is also being demonstrated at municipal landfills, sewage disposal plants, algae/ductweed farms, and industries producing waste effluent. This goes well beyond the carbon issue.

  5. […] The work of Searchinger, referred to by I-SIS, has been mentioned in connection with this false accounting as long as a year ago. For instance, the Industrial Biotechnology and Climate Change blog had noted in 2009 November: […]

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