Biofuels Damage the Environment: Nitrous Oxide Trumps Carbon Dioxide

Scientists working on behalf of the International Council for Science (ICSU), a Paris-based federation of scientific associations from around the world, have issued a new report that says biofuels do more to create global warming than burning fossil fuels. The reason is that raising the plants to be turned into ethanol and biodiesel releases large volumes of nitrous oxide (N2O), which is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2) as a greenhouse gas. Once again, trying to solve humanity's longterm energy and climate problems by hastily grasping at so called green solutions has resulted in the opposite of what eco-activists have claimed.

Biofuels have been promoted as a way of reducing the amount of CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. Plants such as sugar cane, corn (maize), wheat and oilseed rape absorb carbon dioxide as they grow. In theory, burning fuels made from them should have no net effect on the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and, therefore, should not contribute to global warming. In Europe, efforts have concentrated on the use of rape seed oil for biodiesel while America has focused its efforts on corn in the short term with a vague promise of a shift to non-food cellulose (wood) sources sometime in the future.

The ICSU report concludes that the production of biofuels has increased rather than reduced global warming. In particular, it supports the controversial findings published in 2007 by Paul Crutzen of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany. Dr Crutzen concluded that most analyses had underestimated the impact on global warming of N2O by a factor of three to five. The amount of this gas released by farming biofuel crops such as corn or rape offsets any advantage offered by reduced emissions of CO2.

It is bad enough that growing crops for fuel has increased the cost of food world wide—now we find that the reason for doing so is a lie. The US Department of Agriculture reports domestic ethanol production climbed to almost 5 billion gallons in 2006, up nearly 1 billion gallons in 2005. The agriculture industry is stepping up the pace of expansion, with production expected to top 10 billion gallons in 2009. Most of the current expansion in ethanol production uses corn as the feedstock.

The Obama administration has given support to ongoing biofuel development, mainly because it is strongly backed by corn belt members of congress. This is yet another example of people using green cover for personal gain—politicians can claim to be acting out of concern for the environment while boosting crop prices for farmers back home. Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, is no fan of corn-based ethanol, presumably because a variety of studies have suggested that it takes a significant amount of energy to produce. Most indications are that ethanol produces very little “new” energy once the energy for cultivation, harvesting and production are subtracted from the energy content of the fuel produced. Even before the new revelations regarding nitrous oxide, this fact diminished biofuel's impact on carbon emissions. Nevertheless, the Energy Independence and Security Act sets hard targets for ethanol biofuel, even though the only thing that makes ethanol viable in the market place is government subsidies.

Under current law, suppliers can receive tax credits equal to 51 cents per gallon of ethanol blended with gasoline. This helps makes ethanol more economical to produce, as part of that credit is reflected in the price suppliers pay to the ethanol producers. Additionally, ethanol imports are subject to a tariff of 54 cents per gallon, although imports from designated Central American and Caribbean countries are duty-free up to a maximum of 7 percent of the U.S. ethanol market. If the goal is reducing our dependence on foreign oil, not subsidizing domestic farm production, why the import restrictions?

Ethanol accounts for a small share in the overall gasoline market, but its importance to the corn market is large. In 2006, ethanol (by volume) represented about 3.5% of gasoline supplies in the United States. That year 14% of the U.S. corn crop went to ethanol production, a share projected to grow to more than 30% by 2009/10 and to remain at that level in subsequent years. By the middle of the next decade, ethanol production will still represent less than 8% of annual US gasoline use. So, while the growth in corn-based ethanol only makes a small contribution to the Nation’s fuel supply, that growth can have large effects in the agricultural sector. As the ethanol industry absorbs a larger share of the corn crop, higher prices will affect domestic use and exports, creating greater demand competition between domestic industries and foreign buyers of feed grains.

So, despite increasing agricultural runoff, elevating food prices and generating more greenhouse gases, energy companies, politicians and activists insist on pushing the use of biofuels. What's more, the ICSU report suggests overall N2O emissions are probably more important than previously realized. Earlier studies, including those by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), may have miscalculated their significance. Once again, further study has shown the IPCC's level of scientific understanding to be inadequate, their work to be incomplete, and their conclusions to be wrong. No wonder the Economist titled their article on the ICSU report “Biofools.” How long will our leaders and politicians be foolish enough to believe the climate catastrophists' shoddy science?