Is the World Turning Against Biofuels?

Published April 2, 2014

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has suddenly reversed its support for biofuels. The panel now admits growing crops for fuel “poses risks to ecosystems and biodiversity.”

Scientists and many Green activists years ago turned against such “renewables” as ethanol and biodiesel. The US and EU governments, however, wanted to keep the renewable subsidies for their farmers. Such is the lag time of the political process, where favoritism has wealthy friends.

The key science for the turnaround came in 2008, supplied by Princeton’s Tim Searchingeret al. in Science Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increased Greenhouse Gases Through Land Use Change,” Science 313:1238–1240). The research showed plowing up new land for renewable energy crops gasses off massive amounts of soil carbon into the air. It takes decades for the tiny reduction in vehicle emissions to “pay back” the soil carbon loss. Where rainforests are being cut—as in Brazil to grow sugar for ethanol, and in Indonesia where peatlands are being drained to grow palm oil for EU biodiesel—the gassing off of soil carbon is much greater. That means we are tripling food costs and boosting the price of gasoline for no valid purpose.

I warned them. My 2006 report on President George W. Bush’s higher ethanol mandate was titled Biofuels, Food or Wildlife? The Massive Land Costs of U.S. Ethanol. I warned that the United States might lose another 50 million acres of wildlife habitat, even as food costs soared and tropical forests disappeared in Indonesia to grow palm oil for biodiesel.

I was too conservative in my estimate. World corn prices have effectively tripled, visiting awful stress on the food budgets of the poorest people of the world. We shifted tens of millions of acres of land from cotton, sorghum, tropical forests, wetlands, and pasture into corn and palm oil. All of this to produce small amounts of low-power fuels that cost too much at the pump and raise prices in the grocery store. Because of government subsidies, we taxpayers also pay yet again at tax time.

“It is neither moral nor constructive to shift major amounts of the world’s food supply to fuel production when significant elements of the world’s people remain ill fed,” I wrote then. “It is neither moral nor constructive to needlessly destroy broad tracts of wildlands for fuel crops when alternative energy sources such as nuclear power are not being used. It is a dreadful breach of human ethics to adopt a policy that creates both of these harms at the same time.”

The dream was that cellulosic ethanol, made from crop wastes and wood scraps, would forestall the expansion of cropland for ethanol. That technology failed. Instead, shale gasfracking has dramatically shifted global oil and gas production, without subsidies and with a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Fracking, however, merely highlighted the basic foolishness of ethanol in a world that has no more prime farmland. We will need twice as much food for the peak high-income human population within the next 40 years. Equally true, we cannot afford to lose our wildlands to achieve this. The world’s crop yields must be redoubled yet again.

In 2011, more than 200 scientists wrote to the European Commission, condemning the EU biofuels mandate. They declared the production of energy crops was resulting in clearing of additional land and soil carbon loss.

At that time, ethanol looked like another apparently permanent drain on a U.S. national treasury already $17 trillion in the red. This to “support” well-to-do corn farmers who have only a few votes, even as the dairy, livestock, and poultry industries are harmed along with consumers.

Now, however, even Democrats on Capitol Hill are turning against ethanol. Staunch California Democrat Dianne Feinstein and a group of like-minded Senators recently introduced a bill to eliminate the corn ethanol mandate.

Environmental groups have even sought my help in getting rid of the mandate, indicating near-desperation to eliminate the high food and fuel costs imposed on the American people in a costly Green mistake.

Dennis T. Avery, a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute, is an environmental economist and formerly a senior analyst for the U.S. Department of State. He is coauthor, with S. Fred Singer, of Unstoppable Global Warming Every 1500 Years.