Friday, February 08, 2008

Global Warming Solutions: Biofuels Foolish, But Other Options Are Better and Faster

The Los Angeles Times says that two studies published yesterday in the journal Science have found that the rush to grow biofuel crops is actually increasing greenhouse gases rather than reducing them:

The first study looked at the amount of carbon in forests and grasslands that is released into the air when soils are overturned and existing vegetation rots or is burned away. It found that "clearing forests and grasslands to grow the crops releases vast amounts of carbon into the air--far more than the carbon spared from the atmosphere by burning biofuels instead of gasoline."

The second study found that "Even converting existing farmland from food to biofuel crops increases greenhouse gas emissions as food production is shifted to other parts of the world, resulting in the destruction of more forests and grasslands to make way for farmland."

The second analysis said a cornfield devoted to producing ethanol would have to be worked for 167 years before it would start to achieve a net reduction in emissions.

The Times said several scientists believe the biofuel industry needs to focus on sources that do not increase pressure on land, like municipal trash, crop waste and prairie grasses. Alex Farrell, professor of energy and resources at UC Berkeley, summed it up: "We need better biofuels before we need more biofuels."

Meanwhile, two researchers from Rice University have compiled a list of alternatives that actually will achieve real results, and faster than biofuels.

In line with the studies above, they put curtailing world deforestation, especially tropical deforestation, at the top of their list. They say it causes 20% of global carbon emissions each year.

They also suggest an international agreement to ban natural gas flaring, which adds about 400 million tons of carbon a year--"the same scale of emissions from all vehicles in the United Kingdom, France and Germany." The leading contributors: Nigeria, Russia, Iran, Algeria, Mexico, Venezuela, Indonesia and the U.S.

They say U.S. fuel efficiency standards which Congress passed in December will reduce greenhouse emissions by 185 million tons, or about 25%, between now and 2030.

They also favor phasing out non-sensible subsidies for corn-based ethanol as well as consumer-friendly fuel subsidies by China, Iran, Russia and Mexico.

The Associated Press also reports that researchers have developed a device that generates electrical power from the swing of a walking person's knee. By helping the leg to decelerate it generates power without requiring much additional energy from the person walking. Potential applications include powering cell phones and portable GPS locators, motorized prothetic joints or implanted drug pumps.

The article doesn't mention it. But is it too far-fetched to imagine that the same kind of device might eventually be adapted to bring power to a small electric bicycle motor?

In short, there is a whole portfolio of alternatives to biofuels. And unlike biofuels, they do not have to make climate change worse before they help make it better.

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