The Biofuel Greenhouse Gas Emissions Labyrinth
As governments roll out public policy directing increased biofuel production for all sectors of the transportation industry, serious questions around environmental sustainability still remain.
Although the food versus fuel debate -- should arable land be used to grow energy crops, or food crops be used to fuel our cars instead of our bodies -- has long been a part of the biofuel story, the issue is becoming more complex.
Researchers are now thoroughly analyzing the effect land-use change from biofuel development has on the environment. Whether it is palm oil, corn, soybean, or jatropha, most biofuel feedstocks require land to be grown -- algae is one of the few feedstocks which does not require a serious amount of arable land.
With the increased global demand for biofuels, more land is being cleared to grow energy crops. Deforestation and land clearing produce carbon emissions, and this has led scientists and environmentalists to dive into the issue to determine the best way to develop alternative fuels.
The latest research from the University of California at Davis highlights some important factors in regard to the carbon emissions associated with land-use change.
In a study, which will be published in the journal Nature Climate Change, scientists discovered that the volume of greenhouse gas emissions released when a forest is cleared depends on two factors: one, how the felled trees are used; and, two, in which part of the world the trees are grown.
One of the study's key findings is that when trees are cut down to create solid wood products, such as lumber for housing, that the wood will retain the bulk of its carbon for decades. Conversely, if the trees are burned or turned into pulp for paper, the carbon is released almost automatically into the atmosphere.
Lead author J. Mason Earles, a doctoral student at the UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies says his team discovered that "30 years after a forest clearing, between 0 percent and 62 percent of carbon from that forest might remain in storage. Previous models generally assumed that it was all released immediately."
However, in an interview with EnergyBoom, Earles also explained that the manner in which wood is treated after cutting is highly variable from country to country. Earles stated that on the whole, much less carbon is stored in tropical areas like Brazil and Indonesia.
On the other hand, as much as 30-40% of carbon can be stored in areas like Canada, Europe, and the United States. Indeed, the study's data shows that that "carbon stored in forests outside, Europe, the USA, and Canada, will be almost entirely lost shortly after clearance."
Earles explained part of the reason for this is there is not the same manufacturing demand for wood by-products in developing, tropical countries.
These findings are of particular importance given the current state of the biofuel industry. By 2017, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation estimates that both ethanol and biodiesel production will double to nearly 150 billion litres collectively. Furhthermore, In its Global Biofuel Market Analysis, RNCOS estimates that Brazil and the US accounted for 87% of biofuel production in 2008. Production in China has also increased rapidly as it now is the third largest producer of biofuel, behind Brazil and the US.
In 2010, Asia accounted for 12% of global biodiesel production, the majority of which was derived from palm oil harvested in Thailand and Indonesia. Meanwhile, India has set a goal of meeting 20% of its diesel demand with biodiesel.
With their bustiling economy and large populations, China and India need all the energy they can get, but many developing nations such as Indonesia, Tanzania, Brazil, and Argentina are exponentially increasing their biofuel production largely as result of the insatiable demand for fuel from the European Union and the United States.
All of these countries are found in tropical regions, and Indonesia has already come under considerable attack from environmentalists for its forest clearing practices.
Biofuels offer an important piece of the low-carbon energy future, but only if they are developed and utilized in an intelligent manner. There is much at stake in the biofuel game, and politicians and industry alike are receiving a lot of pressure to develop an alternative to crude oil. To that end, J. Mason Earles explains the end goal of his work is to "have the best and most complete science available in order to enable smart public policy to be made."
Nathanael Baker is the Managing Editor of EnergyBoom. He has been immersed in the areas of renewable energy and climate change for two years. Before joining EnergyBoom, Nathanael was the Director of Research for the DeSmog Blog. In this role his services included providing research to the New York Times and The Economist. A resident of Vancouver, BC, Nathanael has previously written and ...
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