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More Biofoolery

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k4912-11.jpg If you’re trying to save the world and prevent global warming by filling your car with biofuel, you may need to think again. The idea of using fuel made from plants in place of fossil fuels seems like a good one. Instead of releasing carbon stored underground for millions of years as fossil fuel, we would instead just recycle that which is already in the atmosphere. But this is not how it has worked out, it seems. In the November issue of Smithsonian, Richard Conniff made the argument (in Who’s Fueling Whom?) that the biofuels movement isn't as good as its publicity suggest and might even "be slipping into la-la land," citing such examples as a biofuel-powered speedboat being taken on a failed around-the-world publicity stunt. Now two papers published online by Science magazine are adding to the argument that biofuels as they are currently produced are not helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, they may be contributing to global warming. In the studies, scientists looked at the consequences of producing biofuels, including all of the fossil fuels used in producing them (above, a Missouri corn harvest) and the large amount of natural land being converted into farmland to produce more biofuels. This land use change, in particular, has been left out of previous calculations. Their conclusion: biofuels release more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than conventional fossil fuels. The New York Times reports:
The clearance of grassland releases 93 times the amount of greenhouse gas that would be saved by the fuel made annually on that land, said Joseph Fargione, lead author of the second paper, and a scientist at the Nature Conservancy. “So for the next 93 years you’re making climate change worse, just at the time when we need to be bringing down carbon emissions.�
(Photo credit: USDA Agricultural Research Service/Photo by Bruce Fritz)
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About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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