The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has suddenly reversed its support for biofuels. The panel now admits growing crops for fuel “poses risks to ecosystems and biodiversity.”
Scientists—and many Green activists—turned against ethanol and biodiesel years ago because it took too much land. However, the United States and EU governments have kept their farmer subsidies. “Environmentalism” had suddenly become political payoff.
The key science for the turnaround was supplied in 2008 by Princeton’s Tim Searchinger in Science (“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 frees massive amounts of soil carbon to gas off into the air. When rainforests are cut in Brazil to grow sugar for ethanol or in Indonesia where peat-lands are drained to grow palm oil for EU biodiesel, the gas-off of soil carbon is far greater. That means tripling our food costs and paying higher costs for auto fuel has achieved no real reduction in greenhouse emission.
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 United States might lose another 50 million acres of wildlife habitat.
The USDA, where Secretary Vilsack ardently supports ethanol, gives no report on land conversion despite its voluminous databases. The Environmental Working Group, which opposes ethanol, says it used modern mapping and geospatial technologies to measure converted parcels larger than 10 acres. They found 23.6 million acres of grassland, wetland, and shrubland converted to corn just between 2008 and 2011. Nor does that include the land growing soybeans for U.S. biodiesel, now above 10 million acres per year. Meantime, higher corn and soy prices give increasing incentive 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 then. “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 wastes and wood scraps, would forestall the expansion of cropland for ethanol. Cellulosic has never yet worked. 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 biofuels.
In 2011 alone, more than 200 scientists wrote to the European Commission, condemning the EU biofuels 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 the 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 Dianne Feinstein and a group of like-minded Senators recently introduced a bill to eliminate the corn 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.