Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Fixing the Land Use Flaw in Biofuels-Related Climate Policy: The Climate Doesn't Negotiate

As America and the world move forward devising climate change and clean energy policy solutions, one thing we absolutely have to pay close attention to is what the science tells us are truly the sources of greenhouse gas emissions.  Then we have to cap those sources to the levels our best experts recommend if we are to avoid catastrophe -- the latest recommendation being 350 ppm.

To ignore a massive source of emissions, such as those from land use change -- which Grist's Tom Philpott writes about here -- is to invite failure, likely with extraordinarily expensive consequences.

To view the current policy problem we're dealing with here more clearly, let's use the figurative example of a discussion about eliminating a source of cancer-causing pollution from our drinking water supply.  If scientists told us that we had to get concentrations of the imaginary carcinogen, "Cheneyite", down from current levels of 100 ppm to below 50 ppm to avoid causing a currently observed spike in testicular cancer, we'd have to first identify all the pathways by which Cheneyite enters the water supply.  We'd also have to make sure that each of these sources of Cheneyite are capped to the level needed to achieve an end result of at most 50 ppm in our drinking glass.

If the proposed legislation either doesn't meet the 50 ppm recommendation (is a "compromise bill" that gets Cheneyite down to only 75 ppm), or ignores a key way that Cheneyite enters the drinking water supply (e.g., the bill fights to exclude the contributions of pig poop, at the urging of the agribusiness lobby), then we're simply not going to solve the problem of Cheneyite-induced testicular cancer.  We'll have spent untold millions of taxpayer dollars devising a solution that without a proper scientific foundation, will fail to achieve its goals. Testicular cancer levels will continue to skyrocket.  You can imagine the consequences...

The need to cap emissions from all sources of heat-trapping gases if we are to successfully stop climate change is similar.  To exclude the contribution of land use changes related to biofuel production (e.g., conversion of carbon-absorbing forest to industrial cropland) from climate policy is to invite failure, at a potentially catastrophic cost to humanity.

As Philpott details:

In a concise and devastating “policy forum” piece, a team of authors led by University of Minnesota researcher Tim Searchinger fingered a gaping defect in existing European and pending U.S. climate policy: biofuel gets treated as carbon-neutral, ignoring carbon emissions from land-use change. According to the paper,  the Kyoto Protocol, the European Union’s cap-and-trade law, and the final version of Waxman-Markey (the House climate bill that passed over the summer) all contain the “far-reaching but fixable flaw”:

[They] does not count CO2 emitted from tailpipes and smokestacks when bioenergy is being used, but it also does not count changes in emissions from land use when biomass for energy is harvested or grown. This accounting erroneously treats all bioenergy as carbon neutral regardless of the source of the biomass, which may cause large differences in net emissions. For example, the clearing of long-established forests to burn wood or to grow energy crops is counted as a 100% reduction in energy emissions despite causing large releases of carbon.

Or, as Searchinger put it to a Wall Street Journal reporter, “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.”

The implications of the flaw are staggering: existing climate law, coupled with U.S. and European biofuel mandates, could lead to vast forest clearing—unleashing a gusher of greenhouse gases in the name of ... averting climate change. That’s sort of like trying to save your sight by gouging out your eyes. The authors state:

One study estimated that a global CO2 target of 450 ppm under this accounting would cause bioenergy crops to expand to displace virtually all the world’s natural forests and savannahs by 2065, releasing up to 37 gigatons (Gt) of CO2 per year (comparable to total human CO2 emissions today). Another study predicts that, based solely on economic considerations, bioenergy could displace 59% of the world’s natural forest cover and release an additional 9 Gt of CO2 per year to achieve a 50% “cut” in greenhouse gases by 2050. The reason: When bioenergy from any biomass is counted as carbon neutral, economics favor large-scale land conversion for bioenergy regardless of the actual net emissions. [Emphasis added.]

It should be noted that this “flaw” in U.S. climate policy is no accident. House Ag committee chair Collin Peterson fought like a pitbull to enshrine it in Waxman-Markey. To the agribusiness lobby Pererson represents, tarnishing the good name of ethanol is tantamount to setting fire to a Bible during Sunday school.

Philpott also pointed out other dangers posed by a climate policy that does not intelligently think through how best to use biofuels to achieve our emissions-reducing goals.

Another article in the same Science issue explores another massive problem with biofuels: water scarcity. As the author puts it: “A widespread shift toward biofuels could pinch water supplies and worsen water pollution. In short, an increased reliance on biofuel trades an oil problem for a water problem.” (Emphasis added.)  According to the author, it takes between 90 and 190 liters of water to extract a kilowat-hour worth of oil. To get the same amount of energy from corn-based ethanol? Try 2.2 and 8.6 million liters of water. Ouch.

The bottom line here in climate policymaking is that we need to look at what the best available science tells us about all the potential solutions -- not only at what levels we need to implement them to achieve our goals (e.g. to get CO2 levels back down to 350 ppm), but also what the unintended consequences might be for a particular proposed solution (like corn-based ethanol).

If we happen to ignore -- for political reasons -- a major source of emissions like land use change as Philpott describes above, it's not like Mother Nature and Sister Climate are going to negotiate with us and say, "OK, fine, we'll stop the warming-induced glacial melt and sea level rise and spare your agricultural and drinking water supplies -- and throw in your coastal cities -- if you can cap your emissions at 450 ppm".

We ignore our best experts at our peril.  Unlike Congress, the climate doesn't compromise.

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