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Saturday, October 30, 2010

Biofuels Reduce The Biosphere's Capacity to Absorb Carbon

Brace yourselves for another thought exercise.

Expanding Croplands Chipping Away at World's Carbon Stocks

The conversion of the planet’s ecosystems into cropland — particularly in tropical rainforests — is stretching the Earth’s ability to store carbon, according to a new study. The demand for new agricultural land is growing most rapidly in the tropics, due to growing populations, changing diets, food security concerns, and a rising demand for biofuels.

Tim Searchinger is a researcher who has been published in the prestigious journal Science at least five separate times by my count. His, in hindsight, rather obvious, common sense observations have become a serious thorn in the side of the biofuel industry.

He was one of the first to raise the alarm about indirect land use issues (using corn for ethanol sent a price signal to clear more farmland from carbon sinks). He was the first to point out that government subsidies for biomass will aggravate global warming by motivating people to cut down trees. Burning trees to make electricity will release their carbon into the atmosphere. The seedlings planted to replace those trees will take decades to remove that carbon and store it again. Meanwhile, the CO2 from the trees that were burned will heat the planet for decades. We don't have decades.

Because of the great potential for profit, attention has focused on technology (hybrid and electric cars, solar, wind, nuclear, biofuels, and biomass) that will release less CO2. Very little attention has been paid to the other half of the global warming solution (getting the excess CO2 back out of the atmosphere) because nobody has figured out a way to get rich by just leaving forests and grasslands alone.

Photo by Mongabay

Case in point, Mongabay has an article up titled Scientists blast greenwashing by front groups:

The Consumer Alliance for Global Prosperity (CAGP) is a new group based in Washington D.C. that has launched a campaign against American firms that have adopted sustainability criteria in their sourcing policies. Companies targeted consist mostly of retailers that have dropped APP [Asia Pulp & Paper] from their stores, including Office Max, Staples, and Office Depot, but not Walmart, which has cut ties with APP except for its Walmart China division. The Consumer Alliance for Global Prosperity claims that these corporations are colluding with unions and "radical environmental activists" to hurt consumers in the United States.

"The 'Empires of Collusion' continue to push an anti-prosperity, anti-trade agenda," CAGP says in its campaign materials. "This coordinated campaign is run by radical environmentalists and others against the producers of pulp and paper from the developing world, destroying the livelihoods and aspirations of thousands of the world's poor."

"This initiative will fight back against anti-trade, anti-prosperity collusion among international Green NGOs, American trade union bosses, and corporations looking to eschew the rigors of a competitive marketplace."

How much a given biofuel reduces production of CO2 depends on how much fossil fuel is used to make that biofuel. No crop-based biofuel is carbon neutral. Cane ethanol and palm oil biodiesel come the closest but they all increase greenhouse gases to one degree or another.

But, unlike fossil fuels, the usurpation of water and arable land to grow biofuels inversely impacts our ability to allow forests and grasslands to remove the CO2 that's already in the atmosphere (as well as the CO2 being added with each gallon of biofuel burned). This is an extra downside to biofuels that fossil fuels don't share. Put another way, today's crop-based biofuels are hogging up the land and resources we need to store carbon.

In a nutshell, agrofuels are a dead end idea, a dog barking up the wrong tree. There are many ways to reduce CO2 production other than simply exchanging gallon for gallon the fossil fuels in our gas hog cars for liquid fuels made from the rapidly unraveling fabric of our biosphere.

We must reduce CO2 production while increasing CO2 absorption: Absorption/Production > 1, or Production < Absorption.

Until some biological process absorbs it, CO2 tends to stay put. Plants are the only means we have of removing excess CO2 from the air and safely storing it as carbon. In theory, if we could grow enough plants we would not have to cut back on fossil fuel use to avoid global warming because those plants would absorb and then store all of the CO2 produced by the fossil fuels. This would require roughly tripling the amount of land covered by forest and grassland. Unfortunately, that much water and unused arable land does not exist.

And keep in mind, those plants have to be alive to store carbon. They can't be used for fuel, or food (which is fuel for people).

The biofuel lobby appears to have concluded that this is one argument they are not going to win so they have switched tactics. No longer do they mention greenhouse gases or global warming in their press releases. Instead, they stick to exaggerating claims of clean air and job creation, while fanning the flames of xenophobia by suggesting corn ethanol is a stepping stone to energy independence (when in reality, it has hogged up all of the market leaving nothing for potential next generation fuels).

It seems that few people are interested in just leaving forests and grasslands alone to absorb carbon. The whole idea seems somehow wasteful. Where's the money in that? Global warming is essentially a shot across the bow warning us that we have finally exceeded a planetary limit. Speaking of which, and as icing on the biofuel cake, biofuels are also exacerbating other planetary limits.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Cougar Sign

This is a re-post from 2009. I deleted it to break the link to Chinese spammers who were burying the comments.

I found the above photo on the Flickr Commons. It was taken at a trail head somewhere in California. A cougar was recently removed from a Seattle park just a few miles from where I live:

I poked around looking for cougar sign by some ponds in the park but found only raccoon tracks. The last time a cougar was in this park he left behind a cache of raccoon heads. I chased some growling raccoons away from our chicken coop earlier this summer. Had to buy a new frying pan because I broke the handle off the one I hit the raccoon with.

The cougar was of course, tranquilized, ear tagged, and radio collared. He will be sending text messages to wildlife agents, becoming a source of endless entertainment as they get to track and dart him over and over again in the name of research. Objects of our affections often become victims of them.

I raised this point a few years back on Grist Magazine and got called on the carpet with a nasty email from Luke Hunter, who was then (taking a deep breath) Global Carnivore Program Coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society and an Associate Conservation Scientist in the Science and Exploration Program.

Oddly enough, a few days after this cougar was captured, another one was killed by a car just 15 miles from my house. The photo of the dead cougar was removed from the post after a commenter complained that she did not like pictures of dead cougars.

Nature lovers, of which I am one, should resist the urge to go live with nature. It's better to just visit. People and nature don't mix. Your dogs and cats will create a smelly circle of death around your residence. You will be forced to trap rodents, poison hornets, wasps, termites, and wood ants, fence out deer, porcupines or whatever and will occasionally run over something. An enhancement to the ecosystem you will not be.

This is the second time a cougar has found his way into a park in the middle of Seattle. They follow a rail line which acts as a very long thin green belt connecting this park to the forests in the surrounding mountains. Both had to cross a rail road trestle to complete their journey.

This is proof of the effectiveness of interconnected green belts. Wildlife trapped in small isolated pockets of habitat will eventually die out. Interconnection can make small areas act like larger ones.

The sign below suggests how a non-English speaker might interpret the above sign:

Sign photo credits to:

someToast and ingridtaylar on the Flickr Commons.

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Monday, October 25, 2010

Birth Control will not stop climate change

...but it sure could help. From a study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

...reducing peak population to roughly 8 billion, for example, could save 29 percent of expected greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition, if people are allowed to retire at a reasonable age (there is a trend to increase retirement ages), some industrialized countries could also see a very large drop in CO2 emissions.

On the negative side, increasing urbanization could increase emissions because that trend tends to go along with greater wealth and wealthier people tend to do stupid things like build large homes, drive large cars, and buy second homes.

The $1 million dollar bed pictured above came from this Mongabay article:

The report, based on more than a year of investigations, shows that Madagascar's valuable hardwoods—including ebony, pallisander, and rosewood—are being illegally harvested from rainforest parks and trafficked to Asia, Europe, and the United States. The vast majority of timber—98 percent—however ends up in China, where it is converted into luxury furniture.

"In China, Malagasy rosewood beds sell for a million dollars apiece...

The person who buys the above bed should get the prestigious "Moron of the Century" award. It's not just how many of us are consuming but how and what we are consuming as well.

I suspect that if a global meme were to get started that super-efficient, solar enhanced, small homes, and cars were cooler than the cavernous status symbols of today, urbanization and the wealth that follows could drive emissions down more than the study estimates.

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Thursday, October 21, 2010

EPA approves E15--Bob Dinneen unsatiated

Bob Dinneen, head of a very well-funded corn ethanol lobbying organization, has a new press release in the Huff Po green blog which begins by claiming:

Other nations, including Brazil, with at least as many older vehicles on their roads, allow higher levels of ethanol blends with no discernible damage to their cars and light trucks.

In reality, unlike American cars, cars in Brazil where ethanol blends have been 22% since 1993 are all designed to run on that higher blend. According to Wikipedia:

"All Brazilian automakers have adapted their gasoline engines to run smoothly with these range of mixtures, thus, all gasoline vehicles are built to run with blends from E20 to E25, defined by local law as "Common gasoline type C". Some vehicles might work properly with lower concentrations of ethanol, however, with a few exceptions, they are unable to run smoothly with pure gasoline which causes engine knocking, as vehicles traveling to neighboring South American countries have demonstrated.."

Next he tells us about a study conducted specifically "for" his lobbying organization and paid for in part by the Illinois Corn Marketing Board:

In fact, the internationally recognized automotive-engineering firm, Ricardo, Inc., recently conducted a study for the Renewable Fuels Association [my emphasis] that used EPA's own engineering assessment methodology to determine the efficacy of E15 in vehicles MY2000 and older [not exactly true, the study went back only 6 years]. The report concludes: "... the adoption and use of E15 in the motor vehicle fleet from the studied model years should not [my emphasis and note they did not use the term "will not"] adversely affect the vehicles or cause them to perform in a sub-optimal manner when compared with their performance when using the E10 blend that is currently available."

Hmmm, who to believe? An organization chartered to protect the environment or a company that designs fuel systems for the car industry? Your call. According to the Ricardo study:

Six automotive manufacturers were identified as representing the overwhelming majority of vehicles sales for the study period, and the top selling platforms of these manufacturers thus became the focus of the Ricardo study. This approach enabled Ricardo to carry out engineering analysis without individually inspecting or testing each of this very large number of vehicles.

...this study demonstrates for the first time that raising the blend ceiling to E15 is "likely" to have a "negligible" [my emphasis] impact on vehicles manufactured between 1994 and 2000.

That's right. They only actually physically tested a handful of cars. In other words, if a 15 percent blend screws your car up immediately, or slowly over time, too bad for you because they never said it wouldn't, they said the higher blend is "likely" to have a "negligible" impact.

Bob goes on to tell us that EPA mandated labels on gasoline pumps to warn consumers that they are about to put a 15 percent blend into their cars "will ...confuse gasoline marketers, retailers and consumers.."

I own four cars (because my family has four drivers--myself, my wife, and my two daughters who are still in school). Half of our cars are quite a bit older than the study covered using statistical methods. What about all the poor people in America driving older cars, Bob? Is your organization going to pay their repair bills, (assuming the Ricardo study is correct, which is not "likely")?

...while making it more difficult for the nation to transition from imported oil to clean-burning, American-made renewable fuels. As it says in Scripture, "For if the bugle produces an indistinct sound, who will prepare himself for battle?"

Above Dinneen(along with quoting scripture that references violence), continues to claim that corn ethanol can scale up to the point of replacing imported oil. It can't. Using a third of our corn crop it barely displaces five percent of our gasoline use. And this fuel is not what you could call clean. In addition to being the major cause of the Gulf of Mexico dead zone:

"..Due to its ozone effects, future E85 may be a greater overall public health risk than gasoline.."

"health costs are $469 million for gasoline and $472–$952 million for corn ethanol, with the higher totals coming from coal-fired production."

"..would likely worsen health problems caused by ozone, compared with gasoline, especially in winter.."

Although his overarching concern appears to be national security, below he plays the global warming card:

On the environmental front, according to an analysis conducted by the EPA, ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 61 percent, compared to gasoline.

Actually, according to this NRDC article:

At its worst, lifecycle GHG emissions from corn ethanol exceed those from gasoline in all three scenarios. At its best, corn ethanol is not that much better than gasoline on a climate basis, and certainly not good enough to warrant the soil degradation, water resource depletion and water pollution it continues to cause.

Bob continues distorting reality:

On the economic front, the US ethanol industry supports nearly 400,000 jobs

Actually, according to this NRDC article:

" some estimates, fully 2/3rds to 3/4ths of the jobs were already there... But US farmers would have been growing crop any way thanks to domestic agricultural subsidies and just exporting more than we do today. Thus if there’s any significant job creation in agriculture, it’s probably internationally where farmers are trying to make up for the higher level of exports our farmers would have been able to supply."

Next, Bob tells us ethanol paid $15.9 billion in federal, state and local taxes. What he does not tell us is that those taxes would have been paid by the gasoline the ethanol replaced, so no new income was generated as he suggests.

When it comes to energy security, the production of a record 10.75 billion gallons of ethanol last year replaced 364 million barrels of oil that would otherwise have been imported from unstable nations with unfriendly governments, such as Hugo Chavez's Venezuela and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran.

America has not imported any oil from Iran since the hostage crisis during the Carter administration and 10.75 billion gallons barely represents five percent of our gasoline use. Considering that it took about a third of our corn crop to do that it's easy to see that corn ethanol can't scale up enough to provide a modicum of energy security.

Meanwhile, the Blend Wall also stands in the way of developing the next generation of biofuels from feedstocks such as woodchips, corncobs, native grasses, and even garbage.

The above quote is a beautiful example of what Orwell called "doublespeak." In reality, it is thanks to corn ethanol that there is little market left for alternative versions of ethanol. It has hogged the entire market up for itself. The greatest impediment to alternative forms of ethanol corn ethanol.

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