Biofuel: Bad for the Environment?

Researchers find that biofuel makes global warming worse, not better.

ByABC News
February 19, 2009, 12:48 AM

Feb. 7, 2008 — -- As the debate over what do about human-caused global warming increases and "green fever" sweeps the nation, many environmentalists and politicians have viewed biofuel as a logical replacement for fossil fuels.

But two new studies released Thursday call into question the global movement toward biofuel. According to these researchers, production of biofuel actually contributes to global warming, doing more harm than good.

The studies, one conducted by Minnesota-based Nature Conservancy and one by Princeton University, examined the same issue: What environmental impact does growing vegetation used for biofuel have on global warming?

U.S. demand for ethanol crops like corn, soy and switchgrass has resulted in the conversion across the globe of natural habitats – like grasslands and rainforests – into fuel-ready farmland, according to the studies. That development has released mass amounts of carbon into the air, researchers said.

"You ask the world's farmers to produce energy and that's going to take additional land and that land has to come from somewhere. Unfortunately, much of it is coming from our natural ecosystem. What's the consequence of that?" Joe Fargione, the regional science director for the Nature Conservancy and the lead author of one study, told "If you imagine a grassland and a cornfield, there's much more carbon in the grassland soil. When you convert a grassland into a cornfield, that carbon has to go somewhere. It goes into the air as carbon dioxide and contributes to global warming."

"Any biofuel that causes the clearing of natural ecosystems will increase global warming," he continued.

In the Princeton study, which was led by Timothy Searchinger, a German Marshall Fund fellow and a researcher at Princeton University, numbers told a striking story.

Past data that has outlined the benefits of biofuels didn't include the issues surrounding the impact of land use and the carbon released into the air as a result, both studies said.

Using models that calculated carbon emissions in various countries, the Princeton researchers found that the production of corn-based ethanol nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gasses for 167 years. Similarly, biofuels made from switchgrass, if grown on land originally intended for corn, increase carbon emissions by 50 percent.