Ethanol and greenhouse gas emissions: be skeptical

March 15, 2010

In the realm of science, it pays to go into things with an open mind. In the realm of human thought, an open mind is a rare event. We’re hardwired to immediately trust anything we agree with and are skeptical of anything we don’t. Because of that, we can find ourselves becoming very hypocritical, criticizing something for a perceived flaw while defending something else for the exact same flaw. If we were to do evaluate scientific research in this manner, we would be, well, exactly where we are now in the realm of global warming.

That’s why I was a bit disappointed to see this article up on Watts Up With That. Now, I don’t mean to criticize the site or its founder; they do excellent work. But he’s clearly not well versed in the realm of biofuels. So first, a brief background on this paper (pdf)and the controversy it is involved in. Back in early 2008, the idea of considering indirect land use change (ILUC) to determine greenhouse gas emissions from ethanol production was first introduced. Let’s ignore the idea of whether we should care about GHGs in the first place. The theory behind ILUC is simple and intuitive; if we grow more corn for ethanol here, we can’t make as much food. So in order to meet that demand, we’ll have to grow it somewhere else. And that means cutting down the rainforest or something to that effect. Obviously, the science is more complicated, and relies a lot on agricultural economic models. But that’s not really needed for now. This paper is an update of this concept. It claims that an increase from 2001 ethanol production (~1.7 billion gallons) to expected 2015 levels (15 billion gallons) will not reduce worldwide GHG emissions due to the added emissions from, well, cutting down the rainforest and stuff.
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