Report: Biofuels Emission Rules Encourage Deforestation

Jim Lane Biofuels Digest - October 23, 2009 Controversy over land use change

Jim Lane Biofuels Digest — October 23, 2009

Controversy over land use change erupted again in the biofuels industry with the publication of a new article in science by Timonthy Searchinger, Daniel Kammen and 11 others, which said that “an important but fixable error in legal accounting rules for bioenergy” relating to land use change could “undermine efforts to reduce greenhouse gases by encouraging deforestation.”

Kammen said in a release that the accounting rules used in the Kyoto Protocol, the European Union’s Emissions Trading System, and in the climate bill that recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives, exempt the carbon dioxide emitted by bioenergy, regardless of the source of the biomass.

Tim Searchinger told Keith Johnson at the Wall Street Journal, “Literally, in theory, if you chopped up the Amazon, turned it into a parking lot, and burned the wood in a power plant, that would be treated as a carbon-emissions reduction strategy.” According to the authors, “the solution is to count all emissions from energy use, whether from fossil fuels or bioenergy, and then to develop a system to credit bioenergy to the extent it uses biomass derived from “additional” carbon sources, and thereby offsets energy emissions.”

Reaction was swift and strong, though the proposal is similar to one made several months ago in Science. As the New York Times reported, “Dr. James A. Edmonds, a chief scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, arrived at similar findings in a paper published in Science several months ago.”

The difference is the Searchinger factor—a tribute to the negative impact that a Searchinger paper on indirect land use change published in Science in 2008 had on biofuels legislation, financing and on the industry’s leadership.

The New York Times wrote: “The protocol imposes no limits on land-use emissions in developing countries. So if a forest is cleared in Indonesia and ends up as biofuel in Europe, Asia does not count the land-use emissions and Europe does not report the tailpipe emissions. The end result is that the carbon release from bioenergy use is not counted at all.”

The Journal wrote: “The problem is that Kyoto, the European cap-and-trade program, and the proposed U.S. legislation don’t include all countries—like those where the forests are getting cut down in the first place. So those greenhouse-gas emissions are slipping through the cracks. Worse, by treating bioenergy as completely green, current legislation offers a perverse incentive.

The Renewable Fuel Association said: “There is undeniable evidence that the climate concerns we face have been caused in large measure by the reckless use of finite fossil fuel resources. Developing a host of renewable alternatives, including from biomass feedstocks, should be a central goal. While recognizing that all carbon-based energy has associated carbon emissions, we must look for the least carbon-intensive alternatives and favor approaches that ‘recycle’ above-ground carbon. Based on a fair apples-to-apples comparison with petroleum, biofuels clearly offer society a lower-carbon path forward.

“The real issue is not accounting tactics, but whether biofuels reduce GHG emissions compared to continued petroleum use. There is clear and substantial evidence that they do.

“The biogenic emissions resulting from the use of biofuels are recycled during the plant’s growth via the photosynthesis process. This stands in stark contrast to petroleum, which when combusted releases carbon that has been stored underground for millions of years.

“RFA strongly agrees with the authors that natural ecosystems with high carbon storage—such as rainforest, peat soils, and other native lands—absolutely should not be converted to produce biofuel feedstocks. Those who directly convert these land types for biofuel crop production or any other purpose should be severely penalized and every effort should be taken locally to prevent this type of direct action.”

“However, there is no credible evidence that positively links U.S. biofuels expansion to the conversion of these land types. There are ample supplies of agricultural land available, together with improvements in agricultural technology, to meet the energy and food demands of a growing population.”

Brent Erickson, executive vice president of BIO’s Industrial & Environmental Section, said:

“Biofuels and biomass energy recycle atmospheric carbon, while fossil energy takes carbon that has been stored for millions of years in the earth and releases it into the atmosphere. The policy proposed today distorts this simple fact. It also fails to take into account that well-managed biomass production can sequester more carbon in the soil than is released into the atmosphere through combustion of biofuels and bioenergy. Biomass carbon can also be sequestered in production of biobased products. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s analysis earlier this year shows that well-managed cellulosic sources of biomass can actually take more CO2 from the air, and sequester it in the soil.”