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At least our government isn’t providing huge subsidies for…Oh wait. Nevermind.

February 8, 2008

A new study on the environmental impact of ethanol production and use shows us very clearly the law of unintended effects at work.  The study shows that global reactions to ethanol production end up causing more carbon dioxide emissions than even widespread ethanol use would prevent.

The reasoning goes basically like this:  farmers in the US are receiving huge subsidies to produce corn for ethanol production.  As a result, less corn for human consumption is being produced in the US, increasing our reliance on foreign sources of agriculture.  The increase in demand is causing farmers around the world to up their food production.  So far so good.  Except that these farmers are using very inefficient means of food production, and are often times buring down forests (including rainforests) and other natural habitats to do so.

This burning (combined with the loss of those trees to absorb the carbon dioxide) results in a net increase in carbon dioxide output, even when you factor in the benefits of using ethanol instead of oil:

In fact, Searchinger’s group’s study, published online by Science magazine, shows those actions end up releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide. The study finds that over a 30-year span, biofuels end up contributing twice as much carbon dioxide to the air as that amount of gasoline would, when you add in the global effects.

“Right now there’s little doubt that ethanol is making global warming worse,” Searchinger says.

This will create a good deal of controversy, of course, with the farmers who are set to financially benefit from ethanol attacking the study.  What will be interesting is how the true environmentalists take the study.  On one hand they will be reluctant to let go of what has become a fairly standard piece of their platform.  On the other hand, as people who care about the planet, they cannot just dismiss the study.

It appears the solution is not a magic bullet fuel, but rather a conscious, meaningful change in attitudes and behaviors of consumers here in the US and worldwide.  Which means until something catastrophic happens to force us to change our ways, we won’t.

One Comment leave one →
  1. February 9, 2008 3:00 am

    So many people keep blaming “environmentalists” for buttressing political support for biofuels. That may have been the case three or four years ago, but most of the grass roots, and many if not most of environmental NGOs have stopped backing first-generation biofuels (like corn-ethanol and soy methyl ester). There are even environmental initiatives, like Biofuelwatch, that have been set up to oppose any further expansion of biofuels. Yes, some of the bigger, established environmental NGOs (those who boast of their access to Congress) still seem to believe that corn-ethanol is a bridge to some future cellulosic Nirvana. But at the grass roots, you will find few environmentalists who agree with that notion.

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