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Are Biofuel Crops Actually Increasing Carbon Emissions?

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Biofuel crops (carbon neutral-ish) replacing natural grasslands (carbon sequestering) not such a good thing?
Biofuel crops (carbon neutral-ish) replacing natural grasslands (carbon sequestering) not such a good thing?

On the surface, planting biofuels crops might seem to be a good carbon-neutral endeavor, but research indicates quite the opposite.

Could growing biofuel crops to fuel your flex-fuel vehicle actually be worse for the environment? A new UW-Madison (University of Wisconsin at Madison) study seems to indicate quite the opposite. The way we see it, biofuel ought to be carbon neutral, but that’s only best-case scenario. For example, growing something like switchgrass or elephant grass sequesters carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which is then released when it is combusted in a flex-fuel vehicle. Carbon in = carbon out, right? Actually, adding in fuel required to plant and harvest increases the carbon footprint of biofuel.

This seems to make sense, and this at least reduces carbon emissions associated with transportation, even if it doesn’t eliminate them, but it’s not as simple as that. Geography professor Holly Gibbs, postdoctoral researcher Meghan Salmon, and graduate student Tyler Lark took a look at what happens when biofuel crops replace former wetlands or grasslands, and their findings were quite shocking. The issue arises when you consider that undisturbed forest, wetlands, and grasslands are already doing a fine job of carbon sequestration, all on their own.

Replacing those areas to biofuel crops actually results in a net increase in carbon emissions, according to the UW-Madison study. For example, between 2008 and 2012, the study determined that some seven million acres, about 11,000 square miles, of former grasslands and wetlands. About half of that, or an area the size of the state of Connecticut, was converted land for planting biofuel crops, such as soybeans and corn.

According to their calculations, the destruction of these natural carbon sequestering zones could possibly be responsible for as much carbon dioxide emissions as adding another 28 million cars to the road. In other terms, the UW-Madison study says that this is about as much carbon emissions as putting another 34 coal power plants in service.

Aside from other environmental impacts, such as natural habitat destruction, increased erosion, and increased irrigation, do we need to take another look at land use with regards to net carbon dioxide emissions related to biofuel crops?

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1 COMMENT

  1. This may be another oranges to apples situation. It’s the product of a gasoline ‘biofuel gasoline world’ versus a ‘100% veggie fueled Diesel world’. Not to take anything away from the Universities, but ALL of the work has already been done. Even when you understand that petroleum-based diesel fuel is only 40 octane, and that’s less than 1/2 the octane of regular unleaded, simple math plus the low flash rate of diesel, would have to indicate that diesel emissions are more world friendly. Now given the 100% veggie-fuel idea, you’d have to think of an even lower set of numbers. Two other things; (1) the diesel is the most productive mechanical device ever invented, has captured nearly 100% of all commercial freight/cargo carrier transportation, and has completely eliminated gasoline transportation as an option on any Business Plan forever, AND (2) if the diesel had not been invented (and we progressed down the same transportation path as today), with gasoline-burning transport of today’s volume of goods, the world’s atmosphere would already require SBA (as in SUBA. . . just not ‘Underwater’).

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