Still Boondogglin'
Biofuels Less Green Than Gasoline

New research published in the journal Climatic Change levies a serious accusation against biofuels: namely that they’re worse for the planet’s climate than regular ol’ gasoline. The study’s lead author, research professor John DeCicco at the University of Michigan Energy Institute, challenged the conventional wisdom methodology of assessing the ecological merits of biofuels, choosing to evaluate their impact over a set period of time rather than justifying potential short-term degradations by pointing to potential positive outcomes over the longer “life-cycle” of these fuels. Climate Central reports:

Based largely on comparisons of tailpipe pollution and crop growth linked to biofuels, University of Michigan Energy Institute scientists estimated that powering an American vehicle with ethanol made from corn would have caused more carbon pollution than using gasoline during the eight years studied. […]

“I’m bluntly telling the life-cycle analysis community, ‘Your method is inappropriate,’” said professor John DeCicco, who led the work. “I evaluated to what extent have we increased the rate at which the carbon dioxide is being removed from the atmosphere?”

Lifecycle analyses assume that all carbon pollution from biofuels is eventually absorbed by growing crops. DeCicco’s analysis found that energy crops were responsible for additional plant growth that absorbed just 37 percent of biofuel pollution from 2005 to 2013, leaving most of it in the atmosphere, where it traps heat. “The question, ‘How does the overall greenhouse gas emission impact of corn ethanol compare to that of gasoline?’ does not have a scientific answer,” DeCicco said. “What I can say definitively is that, whatever the magnitude of the emissions impact is, it is unambiguously worse than petroleum gasoline.”

This is a bold claim, not least because this sort of life-cycle analysis underpins many green policy prescriptions under the logic that, while the economic and environmental costs might mount in the first years of a program, on a longer time-scale this balance will be paid off.

This is why Europe is able to get away with burning increasing amounts of biomass (read: wood pellets) to meet its renewable energy targets. In theory, the trees felled to help keep the EU’s lights on are then replanted, and if that’s done on a one-for-one basis, from a “life-cycle” perspective the endeavor can be considered carbon neutral. But that’s problematic, as it ignores emissions entailed from the actually felling of said trees, and the emissions produced transporting and mulching said trees, as well. Moreover, it requires an implicit trust that this plan will be carried out in perpetuity—that no bad actors looking to make a quick buck are going to clearcut a forest with no intention of sustainably replanting.

By dint of their longer temporal scope, life-cycle analyses are necessarily imprecise, and that can be problematic for policymakers. Still, life-cycle methodology remains the primary justification for biofuels, and so it’s perhaps not surprising that some scientists have come out swinging against this latest study. But DeCicco’s research ought to give environmentalists and policymakers pause—there’s already research out there that suggests our biofuel mandates are no good for Gaia. It’s past time we scrap this boondoggle.

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