New Studies Say Biofuels Add to Global Warming

Two new studies cast doubt on the ecological benefits of biofuels. Separate teams from Princeton University and the Nature Conservancy conducted the studies, which were published in the journal Science. Both groups found that biofuels exacerbate—rather than counteract— global warming.

”Most of the biofuel that people are using or planning to use would probably increase greenhouse gasses substantially,” said Timothy Searchinger, a research from Princeton University. “Previously there’s been an accounting error: land use change has been left out of prior analysis.”

The crux of the new research is that biofuel production cannot overlook the effects of growing, harvesting, and refining biofuels. When the entire process is considered, biofuels are not nearly as attractive from an environmental perspective. Searchinger found that replacing fossil fuels with corn-based ethanol would double greenhouse gas emissions for the next 30 years. Greenhouse gas emissions are problematic, regardless if rainforest or scrubland is used to grow the fuel.

These studies add to a growing body of research which question the belief that biofuels offer great promise as a “green” fuel for transportation. In the wake of the publication, a group of 10 eminent environmental scientists sent a letter to President Bush, urging a reform of national biofuels policy.


  • Riktok

    That is pretty amazing that they just figured this out. I would think they would have studied this earlier.

  • fhfr3impalass

    That is the ‘knee jerk’ reaction of our government and business leaders. They are all impatient, they want to be first with the ‘Latest’ cure for what ails us and just do not want to wait for the studies to be completed, they just grab the first straw and run with it. It has always been suspicious to me that you can spend all the energy to get the fields ready, plant, harvest, ship, process corn into ethanol and still think that is is not creating its own emissions problem. Besides that, it is raising the cost of everything else (food products) that are being displaced with more and more corn going into ethanol production. They all did the same thing with methanol in the early 1990s, where is that fuel now?

  • flubber

    Wow. How much has already been invested in new ethanol refineries? If this study proves out, many farmers will see the price of corn plummet and will struggle to pay for all the new equipment they’ve purchased. Yet another kick to the groin for the US economy.

  • TS

    I think this study is contributing to greenhouse gases because it’s a load of crap. The idea that natural ecosystems are being destroyed everywhere just doesn’t hold water. I can’t say what their doing outside of the United States, but in the United States there is no need to cut down forests or drain the wetlands. States like North Dakota, Kansas, and Nebraska to name just 3, have millions of acres of farmland that has been being used for years to grow crops. So now instead of dedicating everything to crops for food, which we have a surplus of and end up shipping to other countries, they grow crops that can be used to produce ethanol. Just wait till the counter report comes out from scientists who know more about farming than some professor in New Jersey.

  • bluebomber6

    As far as biofuels not being an energy-efficient means of delivering power for cars (less so than plain-old oil production), I was at a agricultural research conference 5 years ago where they were talking about this – it is not new news…

    Something that not a lot of people are talking about is the cost of biofeuls. As someone who was involved in the agriculture industry for years, and who still has quite a few family members who are farmers, I watch the commodity markets. Grain prices have been shooting up for the last year or so, and will continue to do so, as we begin to approach a world-wide food shortage. The big grain companies have been trying to keep this quiet for years, in order to ensure that they could pay producers low prices. However, we’re at the point now where the carryovers from year to year are so thin that they can’t hide it anymore. Part of the rise in grain prices has been due to the need for more acres being dedicated to production for biofeuls, as the needs of production for food and fuel battle it out. Until biofuel production methods become more efficient (in terms of being able to use plant stalks for production, and not the grain), and oil becomes even more expensive due to dwindling reserves, it will be much more cost-effective to use oil, and to try to figure out how to use less of it – I myself recently went from a full-size SUV to a mid-size sedan, and have reduced my fuel use by over 50% (and my sedan’s engine isn’t even broken in yet – it’s only got 1500 miles on it)…

  • Zol Hooper

    I think it’s only natural when you contemplate a new energy source that you would try to quantify how it is better. If the “news” of corn-based ethanol production being inefficient is just coming out now, or rather, if it has taken until now for anyone to notice it despite scientists shouting it from rooftops for at least half a decade, then it is because no one was really interested in its efficiency from the beginning.

    Even supposing that this issue was never raised prior to the farmers buying any new corn-related equipment for this purpose, while I wouldn’t expect the farmers themselves to complain that rising corn prices have translated to lower output of other crops and lower availability of animal feed, thus raising the prices of their products across the board, you would think that somewhere in the course of growing and fermenting the corn, planning and producing the E85 engines, and going to the pump to find a higher price for a fuel that has less energy, someone would have noticed that ethanol was a bad idea from its origins.

    The fact that after all the years we’ve spent going as far into this forest as we have, that this idea is still being pushed in Washington, leads me to conclude that Washington still believes it is getting what it wants from ethanol. No, do not think it has been an accident; corn-based ethanol was never intended to be anything more than the hugest political pander of our generation to the farmers in the “Heartland,” particularly in Iowa, the first state in the Presidential Primary process.

  • Dusman

    I’m not surprised this hasn’t come out sooner. As stated Zol Hooper about “Iowa, the first state in the Presidential Primary process” makes good since. Our Government uses this as a platform to show American voters they are working to make a difference in the environment. At the same time they gain an interest group on Capital Hill. If you look at the extensive process in producing E85 (based on the findings of the scientist in the article) it does not pay in the long run and is a bad Course of Action as an alternate fuel source. Just to name a few draw backs:
    - Higher food prices in groceries stores
    - Livestock & poultry feed goes up for cattle, chicken, & pig farms
    - If you like chicken and Beef products you will pay more per lbs
    - E85 has limited availability in America
    - E85 might cost a bit less per gallon, but you pay more in the long run due to bad fuel efficiency compared to regular un-leaded fuel
    - Unless you have a flex fuel engine you’re really not benefiting from any of this

  • Eric

    C’mon people…biofuels from WASTE are the answer.

    Biodiesel from left over cooking oil makes more sense than an entire crop of soybeans destined to become bio-diesel. And old candy, switchgrass, grass clippings, etc. make more sense as ethyl alcohol than an entire crop of corn, destined to become ethyl alcohol.

  • simong

    The crop used to get the biofuel is surely a key factor – is this study assuming corn is the crop?

  • Mike G in Missouri

    ADM and Cargill to name just 2 companies with big bucks in grain don’t want this known. Corn and soy are bad biofuels. Each are consumed by humans and other animals with subsequent supply and demand problems. Each must be planted, fertilized, cultivated, transported and processed. Ethanol gives less power per measured unit. I have read the rain forests are being destroyed to make room for soy fields. No personal experience. Corn requires extreme amounts of water to grow and process into ethanol (which personally affects me here in Missouri). The CO2 drawn from the sky as it grows-goes back in the air as it’s burned. I think that would be called a zero gain at best.
    Switchgrass may be better with no fertilizer, no yearly planting, minimal watering, simple cultivation, more efficient CO2 extraction and easier processing.
    I think, as stated above, waste products are great. i.e. used cooking oil. This will get scares when more demands are placed.
    Today, nuclear power is the cleanest with the least effect on the environment. The wastes can be reused when the economy of scale is appropriate. Think electric, efficient diesel, light weight vehicles and Hydrogen power.
    Just my 2 cents. By the way.
    This is from someone with a BS in Biology and an emphysis in Environmental Biology but obviously lacking in writing skills.

  • Hal Howell

    Yet one more reason to stick with gasoline powered Hybrids until plug-in electric cars are more viable and available.

  • Anonymous

    Along with the energy required and source product to make E85, when will someone start talking about the fact that as GM pushes more and more E85 vehicles to dealers in CA, and the ONLY E85 station to date being in San Diego, running these vehicles on regular unleaded make the engine produce almost 3x the emissions of a non E85 engine? Perception versus reality….

  • Peter Bowler

    Where are the citations to these 2 studies? I would not care to make any comment on anything in a brief abstract without consulting the originals. Can anyone provide citations to the originals? Thanks.

  • jason

    well actually that statement is not entirely true. You see all the carbon emissions that are exhausted from the fuel was origininally already found in our atmosphere andthe co2 gas was absorbed into the corn. so what would actually happen is that there would be a balanced carbon emission because the same amount of carbon that is emitted is the same that is absorbed.

  • Brian Phillips

    sounds like research that was funded by either the big 3, Oil companines, or arabian countries. Come on, we just realized we need to add in land use, who are they kidding. What they should have said was we just came up with a way to make biofuels look bad.

  • Brian Phillips

    Oh and by the way, I am all for doing things to get away from fossil fuels for multiple reasons, but NO ONE can assertain that there is truly a link between green house gasses and global warming. When half the scientist say one thing and half another, who you gonna believe is right.

  • Mike G in Missouri

    As Jason said, balanced carbon emissions. The problem is that there were swamps in Alaska which made the oil field under the permafrost that many don’t want to touch. I don’t think we want the ice caps to melt like it was millions of years ago even with balanced carbon emissions. I am more concerned with today, not millions or billions of years ago. There are many factors which effect global warming that are unknown. Maybe we have been preventing an ice age? Who knows? I don’t pretend to know the answer but I believe many scientists who make a living with CO2 research don’t know either. Now just my 4 cents worth.

  • Andy

    Soon you will see a research report entitled “Alternative Energy Adds to Global Warming” and “Cigarette smokers live longer.” The blunder here is that they haven’t demonstrated that *all* bio fuels are problematic. They only address a few priliminary examples like corn. Not all biology requires land. It takes petroleum to make petroleum also. It is shipped half way around the world… And wasn’t it the head of Shell that proclaimed that making fuel from food was “immoral”? It all stinks.

    Keep digging for the truth.

  • Cameron

    this article is not only inaccurate but also poorly thought through. they only state that corn based ethanol will cause an increase in greenhouse gasses, yet they then brush that upon all biofuels. it has been known for years that corn based ethanol in the USA requires more energy input than is achieved as output when burned through a conventional petrol engine. the solution to that is using different feed stocks in production such as sugar cane, wheat or any other sugar producing crop. at the moment it is only corn based ethanol that is believed to be an inefficient use of energy, not all biofuels. Biodiesel can be made from just as many varied feed stocks with a significant improvement on energy output and far greater carbon dioxide capture rate than most bio-ethanol production processes.

    greater thought needs to be put into articles about such important matters.

  • BB

    The distinction between corn-based and cellulosic ethanol is made here:

    http://www.hybridcars.com/ethanol/benefits-drawbacks.html

  • Larry39

    Wahoo! ! STEAM is the answer! A hydrogen-powered fuel cell can produce the steam necessary to power a lightweight auto. Only discharge is drinkable water! Would be a radical reduction in demand for raw materials, as cars could be much lighter and simpler. 86 the cooking oil idea. Too many undesirable combustion products, plus, we would have more Big Macs and fries than ever.

    You got a question, send it to Jay Leno. He knows something about all kinds of cars ( he owns about 200, of ALL kinds, and drives them. His collection you would give three or four lifetimes to own! ).

    Tha’s all! Got to go water my corn plant. Think how much water 900,000 acres of corn would need.

  • Andy

    Larry39,
    How do you figure a hydrogen powerplant reduces demand for raw materials? Are you pumping hydrogen out of the ground somewhere? Or do you think fuel comes from filling stations and milk comes from grocery stores?

  • anonymus

    why even bother with ethanol when hybrid-electrics have the ability to recharge themselves while you drive them,thus making it non dependent on powerplants yet still only sipping gas with the small internal combustion engine?

  • Anonymous

    It might be interesting to see where the funding for these studies came from. It sounds to me like propaganda with an agenda attached. Someone wants maintain the status quo. Nature conservancy of coarse wants to keep the price of land low because they are in the business of buying land. If farmers are making a profit growing ethanol producing crops, the value of land goes up—which is bad for Nature Conservancy.
    There are no published figures on the sources that Princeton U. gets funding from, however there are two major sources, government and business. Government under Bush and crew already are well known about lying to us about environmental issues. It takes court orders to force our government officials to perform their sworn duties to protect the environment. And of coarse, it is no secret which side of the environmental issues big business is going to be on.
    Hey folks—use your common sense, and analyze where the money is coming from and going to. These are just anti-environmental propaganda wrapped in cloak of psuedo-science to sound believable. The “scientists” who wrote these studies are prostitutes for cash.

  • Anonymous

    BTW—why bother with ethanol????

    Becuase oil is running out—MUCH faster than you have been told.

    Even without greenhouse gas concerns—we need to replace oil with something, and we need to do it fast. Ethanol is the only technology that meets all of the needs, is available now, is well tried and proven, and can be implemented with the least disruption to the currnent infrastructure.

    Exotic technologies are exciting to read about—-but 250 million car owners in the US aren’t going to run out and buy a new car tomorrow because it is wonderful technology with lots of glowing hupe.

  • Erik

    Really? That’s too bad. I really thought biofuels are safe for the environment. Oh well. I hope there are some discrepancies to that studies. -Auto Dude

  • John Moore

    Oilfield equipment

    Wow i am surprised

  • John Moore

    So is this saying that it is twice as bad?

    Oilfield

  • jonak

    Its just corn based ethanol which uses only the seed which is the issue; If you used the whole plant, especially of something more like a weed (eg swith grass) then you could eliminate the fertilizer/land use/pesticide part of the carbon footprint.

    It would be better to put a significant tax on gasoline ($2 a gallon), remove the gross subsidies on corn production, and let market forces decide what fuels to substitute for gasoline.

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