Scientists call for halt to biofuels

Ten leading American ecological scientists have sent a letter to President Bush and the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, urging that current biofuels policies be reversed. The letter said:

“We write to call your attention to recent research indicating that many anticipated biofuels will actually exacerbate global warming.”

The scientists were reacting to two major studies – published this week in the prestigious journal Science – that concluded that biofuels cause more greenhouse gas emissions than the fuels they replace.

According to Timothy Searchinger, a researcher in environment and economics at Princeton University,

“Most of the biofuels that people are using or planning to use would probably increase greenhouse gasses substantially…Previously there’s been an accounting error: land use change has been left out of [the] analysis.”

One major problem, according to both studies, is that the clearing of scrub and forest to grow biofuels means that the land loses the ability to absorb C02. In other words, the biofuel may produce less C02 when burnt in cars, but this is more than outweighed by the increase in C02 caused by the loss of forest and scrub, which would otherwise have soaked up much of the C02 produced by burning conventional fuels.

According to Joseph Fargione, lead author of one report, cleared grassland used to produce biofuels increases the greenhouse gas emissions by 93 times as much as the savings from the fuel produced on this same land.

Achim Steiner of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), also recently warned that biofuels may be adding to the problem of climate change rather than alleviating it. Speaking on BBC Radio Four, Steiner said that increased demand for fuel crops had led to vast swathes of rain forest being destroyed and that international standards should be drawn up to protect them.

Clive Matthew-Wilson, editor of the car buyers’ Dog & Lemon Guide, has been a vocal critic of biofuels.

“Biofuels currently offer a feelgood factor, and little else. Biofuels globally are driving food prices so high that poor people in developing countries can no longer afford to feed their families. Thousands of people will inevitably starve to death so that Western motorists can sit in traffic jams on their way home from work.”

The New Zealand-based dairy giant Fonterra is making ethanol from whey – a waste product from the dairy industry. However, while the use of this ethanol will slightly reduce New Zealand’s emissions of greenhouse gases from cars, this reduction is small compared to greenhouse gas pollution produced by the New Zealand dairy industry. Greenhouse gases from dairy cows have increased 70% since 1990 while emissions from nitrogen fertiliser – largely due to dairy farm expansion – have increased 500%.

“The fantasy behind biofuels says that it’s going to be possible to continue the Western lifestyle of the twentieth century by changing the fuel used to power it. That’s a bit like a fat person trying to lose weight by switching from hamburgers to french fries. The basic problem is never addressed.”

“Cars are the perfect transport for empty roads and the worst transport for busy roads. The problem is not the private car; the problem is the private car sitting in traffic jams while empty trains roll by.”

“Most of the world’s alternative energy industry is based on quick fixes to the current system.”

“In reality, most of this technology either isn’t economic, doesn’t work, or simply doesn’t exist and isn’t going to exist anytime soon. It disturbs me to see politicians and business leaders on television promoting fantasy technology using fantasy economics.”

“There’s no quick fix to either the energy shortage or global warming. In the longer term, we’re all going to have to use less energy, and that means smaller houses, less plastic junk that we don’t really need and less wasted trips in our cars.”