THE U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has suddenly reversed its support for biofuels; the panel now admits that growing crops for fuel "poses risks to ecosystems and biodiversity."
Scientists — and many "green" activists — turned against ethanol and biodiesel years ago for taking up too much land. However, the U.S. and European Union governments have kept their farmer subsidies. "Environmentalism" had suddenly become a political payoff.
The key science for the turnaround was supplied in 2008 by Princeton University's Tim Searchinger in "Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increased Greenhouse Gases Through Land Use Change" (Science, 313:1238-1240). The research revealed that plowing up more grassland for renewable energy crops releases massive amounts of soil carbon into the air.
When rainforests are cut down in Brazil to grow sugar for ethanol, or when peatlands in Indonesia are drained to grow palm oil for biodiesel that's shipped to the EU, the release of soil carbon is far greater. That means that tripling our food costs and paying higher costs for auto fuel has achieved no real reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
I warned them. My 2006 report on President George W. Bush's higher ethanol mandate was titled "Biofuels, Food or Wildlife? The Massive Land Costs of U.S. Ethanol." I warned that the U.S. might lose another 50 million acres of wildlife habitat.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, where Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack ardently supports ethanol, gives no report on land conversion despite its voluminous databases.
The Environmental Working Group, which opposes ethanol, said it used modern mapping and geospatial technologies to measure converted parcels larger than 10 acres. It found 23.6 million acres of grasslands, wetlands and shrublands that were converted to corn just between 2008 and 2011. That does not even include the land used to grow soybeans for U.S. biodiesel, which now totals more than 10 million acres per year.
In the meantime, higher corn and soy prices give increasing incentives to clear woodlots, tear out fencerows and fill or drain wet spots on tens of thousands of farms across the eastern half of the U.S.
"It is neither moral nor constructive to shift major amounts of the world's food supply to fuel production when significant elements of the world's people remain ill fed," I wrote in my report. "It is neither moral nor constructive to needlessly destroy broad tracts of wildlands for fuel crops when alternative energy sources such as nuclear power are not being used. It is a dreadful breach of human ethics to adopt a policy that creates both of these harms at the same time."
The dream was that cellulosic ethanol, made from crop waste and wood scraps, would forestall the expansion of cropland for growing ethanol feedstocks, but cellulosic ethanol hasn't worked yet.
Instead, shale gas fracking has dramatically shifted global oil and gas production, without subsidies and with a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.
Fracking, however, merely highlighted the basic foolishness of ethanol in a world that has no more prime farmland. We will need twice as much food for the peak high-income human population within the next 40 years. Equally true, we hate losing wildlands to achieve this. Thus, crop yields on the world's current farmland must be redoubled yet again, even without accounting for biofuel crops.
In 2011 alone, more than 200 scientists wrote to the European Commission condemning the EU biofuel mandate.
Meanwhile, ethanol looked like another apparently permanent drain on a U.S. national treasury already $17 trillion in the red — this to "support" well-to-do corn farmers who have only a few votes, even as many thousands of dairy, livestock and poultry farmers were being harmed even more severely by ethanol than consumers.
Now, even Democrats on Capitol Hill are turning against ethanol. Staunch California Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein and a group of like-minded senators recently introduced a bill to eliminate the government's corn-based ethanol mandate.
Environmental groups have even sought my help in getting rid of the mandate, indicating near-desperation to eliminate their own costly green mistake.
*Dennis T. Avery ([email protected]; www.cgfi.org), a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute, is an environmental economist and formerly a senior analyst for the U.S. Department of State. He is co-author, with S. Fred Singer, of Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Years.