The Dark Side of Biofuels


biofuel.jpg Yet another study deepening our understanding of just why converting native ecosystems to biofuel farms is increasing not mitigating climate change. This according to a study by the University of Minnesota and the Nature Conservancy published online today in Science, finding that turning rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands into biofuel-yielding croplands emits large amounts of carbon that add to the atmosphere’s already heavy burden of greenhouse gases.

In Brazil, Southeast Asia, and the US, land is being planted with corn or sugarcane to produce ethanol, or with palm trees or soybeans to produce biodiesel. The land conversions pump out 17 to 423 times more carbon than the annual savings from replacing fossil fuels with the biofuels. This carbon debt must pay off before they biofuels begin to have the effect of cutting greenhouse gas emissions. In the worst scenario, peatland conversions to palm oil plantations in Indonesia ran up a carbon debt requiring 423 years to pay off. In the Amazon, soybeans will take 319 years. The conversion of U.S. grasslands for corn ethanol and Indonesian rainforests for palm biodiesel also ran up big carbon debts.

There is a solution. The researchers suggest that biofuels made from waste biomass or from biomass grown on abandoned agricultural lands planted with perennials incur little or no carbon debt and offer immediate and sustained greenhouse gas advantages. In the US, Conservation Reserve Program lands, idle lands, and others once in agriculture can be used to grow biofuels and provide energy sources much better than fossil fuels.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones’ environmental correspondent and 2008 winner of the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

One More Thing

And it's a big one. Mother Jones is launching a new Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on the corruption that is both the cause and result of the crisis in our democracy.

The more we thought about how Mother Jones can have the most impact right now, the more we realized that so many stories come down to corruption: People with wealth and power putting their interests first—and often getting away with it.

Our goal is to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We're aiming to create a reporting position dedicated to uncovering corruption, build a team, and let them investigate for a year—publishing our stories in a concerted window: a special issue of our magazine, video and podcast series, and a dedicated online portal so they don't get lost in the daily deluge of headlines and breaking news.

We want to go all in, and we've got seed funding to get started—but we're looking to raise $500,000 in donations this spring so we can go even bigger. You can read about why we think this project is what the moment demands and what we hope to accomplish—and if you like how it sounds, please help us go big with a tax-deductible donation today.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate