Michael Grunwald has a guest essay in The NY Times Opinion pages that raises real questions about the role of biofuels in decarbonizing with renewable energy.
As America rushes to generate more renewable electricity, it has become fashionable to fret that solar and wind farms use too much land. But America is also racing to produce more renewable fuels, and they use much, much more land to displace much, much less fossil fuel.
It’s fairly well-known that farm-grown fuels like corn ethanol and soy biodiesel accelerate food inflation and global hunger, but they’re also a disaster for the climate and the environment. And that’s mainly because they’re inefficient land hogs. It takes about 100 acres worth of biofuels to generate as much energy as a single acre of solar panels; worldwide, a land mass larger than California was used to grow under 4 percent of transportation fuel in 2020.
That’s a huge waste of precious land the world needs to store carbon that can stabilize our warming climate and grow crops that can help feed the growing population. The Environmental Protection Agency could help rein in that waste when it updates America’s sweeping mandate encouraging biofuel production later this month. It probably won’t, though, because in Washington, where cornethanolism is one of the last truly bipartisan ideologies, nearly everyone loves to pretend biofuels are green.
The problem is biofuels have become a political giveaway to Big Ag — it’s difficult for politicians to shut off the money pipeline when votes are riding on it, not to mention the actions of lobbyists. This, despite the fact that they don’t really contribute to saving energy or providing clean alternatives.
What makes corn-based ethanol distinct from most of our other wasteful agricultural giveaways is that it diverts crops from bellies to fuel tanks and uses almost as much fossil fuel — from fertilizers made of natural gas to diesel tractors, industrial refineries and other sources — as the ethanol replaces.
But here’s the real kicker Grunwald brings up:
But the more damaging effect of biofuels, first revealed in a 2008 paper in the journal Science, is that they increase greenhouse gas emissions through the conversion of carbon-rich forests, wetlands and grasslands into farmland, expanding our agricultural footprint while shrinking nature’s. That was tragic back when biofuels seemed like the only plausible alternative to planet-broiling gasoline, but it’s inexcusable now that electric vehicles have become better, cleaner and more economical. Biofuels are like a return to the horse-and-buggy era, when farmers had to grow millions of acres of oats and hay for transportation fuel, except now the crops are processed through ethanol plants instead of animals.
By 2050, the world will need to grow an additional 7.4 quadrillion calories every year to fill nearly 10 billion bellies, while ending deforestation and other wilderness destruction to meet the emissions targets in the Paris climate accord. Biofuels make both jobs much harder.
Grunwald says it’s time to start moving away from biofuels, at least as they are being implemented now in the U.S. He suggests ending subsidies or redirecting them to “biofuels made from leftover restaurant grease, crop residues or other waste products that don’t use farmland.” Giving a higher priority to land use in emission calculations would also be a good idea.
There’s also a factor Grunwald doesn’t mention here, and that’s the amount of water being used to grow these crops. Water supplies are going to be increasingly under stress, as the Colorado River situation shows, not to mention the Ogallala Aquifer. Changes in precipitation can affect not just hydropower but nuclear power if it comes to that. The case for wind and solar power keeps getting stronger — especially if it’s a trade-off between keeping the lights on and having food on the table.
Bonus: The situation Grunwald is describing here with biofuels is a good excuse to bring up Kauffman’s Rules again. (More about them at the link.) Dealing with climate is going to take actions that are go against all of the things we’ve been doing since the Industrial Revolution and population growth set the stage for climate change. A few rules that seem especially relevant here:
1. Everything is connected to everything else. Real life is lived in a complex world system where all the subsystems overlap and affect each other. The common mistake is to deal with one subsystem in isolation, as if it didn’t connect with anything else. This almost always backfires as other subsystems respond in unanticipated ways.
2. You can never do just one thing. This follows from rule #1: in addition to the immediate effects of an action, there will always be other consequences of it which ripple through the system.
13.There are no simple solutions. Real-life systems are big, messy, complicated things, with problems to match. Genuine solutions require careful thought for their effect on the whole system. Anyone who tries to sell you a simple answer–“All we have to do is. . . .and everything will be perfect! “–is either honestly dumb, dishonest, or running for office.
18. Every solution creates new problems. The auto solved the horse-manure pollution problem and created an air pollution problem. Modern medicine brought us longer, healthier lives–and a population explosion that threatens to produce a global famine. Television brings us instant access to vital information and world events–and a mind-numbing barrage of banality and violence. And so on. The important thing is to try to anticipate the new problems and decide whether we prefer them to the problem we are currently trying to solve. Sometimes the “best” solution to one problem just creates a worse problem. There may even be no solution to the new problem. On the other hand, an apparently “inferior” solution to the original problem may be much better for the whole system in the long run.
21. Remember the Golden Mean. When people face a serious problem, they tend to overvalue anything that helps solve it. They mobilize their energies and fight hard to solve the problem, and often keep right on going after the problem is solved and the solution is becoming a new problem. When most children died before their tenth birthdays, a high birth rate was essential for survival and societies developed powerful ways to encourage people to have large families. When the death rate is reduced, a high birth rate becomes a liability, but all those strong cultural forces keep right on encouraging large families, and it can take generations for people’s attitudes to change. Like the man who eats himself’ to death as an adult because he was always hungry as a child, people tend to forget that too much of something can be as bad as too little. They assume that if more of something is good a lot more must be better–but it often isn’t. The trick is to recognize these situations and try to swing the pendulum back to the middle whenever it swings toward either extreme.
28. Foresight always wins in the long run. Solutions to problems affecting complex systems usually take time. If we wait until the problem develops and then react to it, there may not be time for a good solutions before a crisis point is reached. If we look ahead and anticipate a problem, however, we usually have more choices and a better chance of heading the problem off before it disrupts things. Reacting to problems means letting the system control us. Only by using foresight do we have a real chance to control the system; or: those who do not try to create the future they want must endure the future they get.