Tag Archives: biofuels

Hydrological impact of biofuels

R. Dominguez-Faus and others analyze the impact of different biofuels on water in the USA in their article in Envir. Science and Technology, The Water Footprint of Biofuels: A Drink or Drive Issue? (doi:10.1021/es802162x).  The figure below, from the paper, shows the substantial ecological requirements (and variation) among biofuels.

Figure 1. Evapotranspiration, irrigation, and land requirements to produce 1 L of ethanol (Le) in the U.S. from different crops.

Figure 1. Evapotranspiration, irrigation, and land requirements to produce 1 L of ethanol (Le) in the U.S. from different crops.

They write:

The current and ongoing increase in biofuel production could result in a significant increase in demand for water to irrigate fuel crops, which could worsen local and regional water shortages. A substantial increase in water pollution by fertilizers and pesticides is also likely, with the potential to exacerbate eutrophication and hypoxia in inland waters and coastal areas including Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. This in turn would cause undue financial hardship on the fishing industry as well as negative impacts to these vital, biodiversity-rich, ecosystems. Such threats to water availability and water quality on local and national scales represent a major obstacle to sustainable biofuel production and will require careful assessment of crop selection and management options. It is important to recognize that certain crops such as switchgrass and other lignocelluosic options deliver more potential biofuel energy with lower requirements for agricultural land, agrichemicals, and water.

Climatic factors such as frequency of droughts and floods are beyond human control, but as the wide range of estimated nutrients discharged to surface waters shows, clearly some important variables are within our control. These include crop selection, tillage methods, and location. As more biofuel production is integrated into the agriculture sector it will be important to adopt land-use practices that efficiently utilize nutrients and minimize erosion, such as co-cropping winter grains and summer biomass crops. These land use choices should also focus on establishing riparian buffers and filter strips to serve a dual purpose in erosion control and biomass production. Similarly, a CRP-like program should be considered to promote cellulosic biofuel crop planting in marginal lands to prevent excess erosion and runoff while allowing producers to benefit from historically high commodity prices. CRP-like payments would then help to balance societal goals with ecological benefits and provide financial viability for the farmers making the land use choices. Finally, increasing charges for irrigation water for biofuel crops to market rates should be considered to promote fuel crop agriculture in areas where rainfall can supply the majority of the water requirements and to reflect the true value of water resources in the price of biofuels. Policies and programs should be coordinated to avoid the current situation where some efforts (ethanol subsidies, mandates) bid against other programs (CRP) though both are funded by taxpayers with the common goal of environmental protection.

Holly Gibbs on biofuels and climate change

Science News reports on Holly Gibbs talk on biofuels and land clearing at AAAS:

Two papers published last year suggested that clearing tropical forests to plant biofuel crops might actually worsen climate change, but that planting biofuels crops on “degraded” land – such as abandoned agricultural land – offers a net benefit to climate.

Gibbs analyzed satellite images taken from 1980 to 2000 to try to answer the question of whether tropical crops are largely being planted on deforested or degraded land. She found that the majority of new crops were planted on freshly deforested rather than degraded land.

Gibbs said she could not tell from her data whether the new crops were planted for food or fuel. But she added, “What we know is that biofuel use is definitely fueling deforestation.” She said when biofuel prices increase, the amount of deforestation increases as well. She said she would personally estimate that between one-third to two-thirds of deforestation over the past couple of years has been due to the planting of biofuel crops.

“If we run our cars on biofuels produced in the tropics, chances are good that we are effectively burning rainforests in our gas tanks,” Gibbs said.

Joseph Stiglitz on reforming devlopment

Economist Joesph Stiglitz writes about how he thinks societies should shift their incentive structures to encourage investment in the sources of economic growth.  On Comment is free he writes How to combat scarcity in an age of plenty:

At the core of America’s success is technology, symbolised by Silicon Valley. The irony is that the scientists making the advances that enable technology-based growth, and the venture capital firms that finance it were not the ones reaping the biggest rewards in the heyday of the real estate bubble. These real investments are overshadowed by the games that have been absorbing most participants in financial markets.The world needs to rethink the sources of growth. If the foundations of economic growth lie in advances in science and technology, not in speculation in real estate or financial markets, then tax systems must be realigned. Why should those who make their income by gambling in Wall Street’s casinos be taxed at a lower rate than those who earn their money in other ways? Capital gains should be taxed at least at as high a rate as ordinary income. (Such returns will, in any case, get a substantial benefit because the tax is not imposed until the gain is realised.) In addition, there should be a windfall profits tax on oil and gas companies.

Given the huge increase in inequality in most countries, higher taxes for those who have done well – to help those who have lost ground from globalisation and technological change – are in order, and could also ameliorate the strains imposed by soaring food and energy prices. Countries, like the US, with food stamp programmes, clearly need to increase the value of these subsidies in order to ensure that nutrition standards do not deteriorate. Those countries without such programmes might think about instituting them.

Two factors set off today’s crisis: the Iraq war contributed to the run-up in oil prices, including through increased instability in the Middle East, the low-cost provider of oil, while biofuels have meant that food and energy markets are increasingly integrated. Although the focus on renewable energy sources is welcome, policies that distort food supply are not. America’s subsidies for corn-based ethanol contribute more to the coffers of ethanol producers than they do to curtailing global warming. Huge agriculture subsidies in the US and the European Union have weakened agriculture in the developing world, where too little international assistance was directed at improving agriculture productivity. Development aid for agriculture has fallen from a high of 17% of total aid to just 3% today, with some international donors demanding that fertiliser subsidies be eliminated, making it even more difficult for cash-strapped farmers to compete.

Rich countries must reduce, if not eliminate, distortional agriculture and energy policies, and help those in the poorest countries improve their capacity to produce food. But this is just a start: we have treated our most precious resources – clean water and air – as if they were free. Only new patterns of consumption and production – a new economic model – can address that most fundamental resource problem.

Biofuel production vs. Aquatic ecosystems

Simon Donner writes about his new paper Corn-based ethanol production compromises goal of reducing nitrogen export by the Mississippi River (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 10.1073/pnas.0708300105) on his weblog maribo:

A new paper by my colleague Chris Kucharik and I looks at the new US Energy Policy, will calls for growing more corn to produce ethanol, will affect the “Dead Zone” in the Gulf of Mexico. For a quick summary, see Reuters, the CBC or AFP.

The Mississippi dumps a massive amount of nitrogen, largely in the form of the soluble ion nitrate, into the Gulf each spring. It promotes the growth of a lot of algae, which eventually sinks to the bottom and decomposes. This consumes much of the oxygen in the bottom waters, making life tough for bottom-dwelling fish and creatures like shrimp. The Dead Zone has reached over 20,000 km2 in recent years.

The primary source of all that nitrogen is fertilizer applied to corn grown in the Midwest and Central US. Reducing the Dead Zone to less than 5000 km2 in size, as is suggested in US policy, will require up to a 55% decrease in nitrogen levels in the Mississippi.

The new US Energy Policy calls for 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by the year 2022. Of that, 15 billion can be produced from corn starch. Our study found meeting those would cause a 10-34% increase in nitrogen loading to the Gulf of Mexico.

Meeting the hypoxia reduction goal was already a difficult challenge. If the US pursues this biofuels strategy, it will be impossible to shrink the Dead Zone without radically changing the US food production system. The one option would be to dramatically reduce the non-ethanol uses of corn. Since the majority of corn grain is used as animal feed, a trade-off between using corn to fuel animals and using corn to fuel cars could emerge.

Food prices rising due increases in meat consumption and biofuels

The Economist (Dec 6th 2007) writes about how global agricultural prices are Cheap no more:

economist on food prices

…what is most remarkable about the present bout of “agflation” is that record prices are being achieved at a time not of scarcity but of abundance. According to the International Grains Council, a trade body based in London, this year’s total cereals crop will be 1.66 billion tonnes, the largest on record and 89m tonnes more than last year’s harvest, another bumper crop. That the biggest grain harvest the world has ever seen is not enough to forestall scarcity prices tells you that something fundamental is affecting the world’s demand for cereals.

Two things, in fact. One is increasing wealth in China and India. This is stoking demand for meat in those countries, in turn boosting the demand for cereals to feed to animals. The use of grains for bread, tortillas and chapattis is linked to the growth of the world’s population. It has been flat for decades, reflecting the slowing of population growth. But demand for meat is tied to economic growth (see chart 1) and global GDP is now in its fifth successive year of expansion at a rate of 4%-plus.

Higher incomes in India and China have made hundreds of millions of people rich enough to afford meat and other foods. In 1985 the average Chinese consumer ate 20kg (44lb) of meat a year; now he eats more than 50kg. China’s appetite for meat may be nearing satiation, but other countries are following behind: in developing countries as a whole, consumption of cereals has been flat since 1980, but demand for meat has doubled.

Not surprisingly, farmers are switching, too: they now feed about 200m-250m more tonnes of grain to their animals than they did 20 years ago. That increase alone accounts for a significant share of the world’s total cereals crop. Calorie for calorie, you need more grain if you eat it transformed into meat than if you eat it as bread: it takes three kilograms of cereals to produce a kilo of pork, eight for a kilo of beef. So a shift in diet is multiplied many times over in the grain markets. Since the late 1980s an inexorable annual increase of 1-2% in the demand for feedgrains has ratcheted up the overall demand for cereals and pushed up prices.

Because this change in diet has been slow and incremental, it cannot explain the dramatic price movements of the past year. The second change can: the rampant demand for ethanol as fuel for American cars. In 2000 around 15m tonnes of America’s maize crop was turned into ethanol; this year the quantity is likely to be around 85m tonnes. America is easily the world’s largest maize exporter—and it now uses more of its maize crop for ethanol than it sells abroad.

Ethanol is the dominant reason for this year’s increase in grain prices. It accounts for the rise in the price of maize because the federal government has in practice waded into the market to mop up about one-third of America’s corn harvest. A big expansion of the ethanol programme in 2005 explains why maize prices started rising in the first place.

Ethanol accounts for some of the rise in the prices of other crops and foods too. Partly this is because maize is fed to animals, which are now more expensive to rear. Partly it is because America’s farmers, eager to take advantage of the biofuels bonanza, went all out to produce maize this year, planting it on land previously devoted to wheat and soyabeans. This year America’s maize harvest will be a jaw-dropping 335m tonnes, beating last year’s by more than a quarter. The increase has been achieved partly at the expense of other food crops.

Guess who loses
According to the World Bank, 3 billion people live in rural areas in developing countries, of whom 2.5 billion are involved in farming. That 3 billion includes three-quarters of the world’s poorest people. So in principle the poor overall should gain from higher farm incomes. In practice many will not. There are large numbers of people who lose more from higher food bills than they gain from higher farm incomes. Exactly how many varies widely from place to place.

Among the losers from higher food prices are big importers. … some of the poorest places in Asia (Bangladesh and Nepal) and Africa (Benin and Niger) also face higher food bills. Developing countries as a whole will spend over $50 billion importing cereals this year, 10% more than last.

In every country, the least well-off consumers are hardest hit when food prices rise. This is true in rich and poor countries alike but the scale in the latter is altogether different. As Gary Becker, a Nobel economics laureate at the University of Chicago, points out, if food prices rise by one-third, they will reduce living standards in rich countries by about 3%, but in very poor ones by over 20%.