The Intersection of Plants and People

In Climate Battle, Forests Trump Biofuels

Professor John DeCicco, University of Michigan

University of Michigan researcher John DeCicco says the current use of biofuels to combat climate change is a mistake. Photo courtesy of the University of Michigan

John DeCicco, a researcher and professor at the University of Michigan’s Energy Institute, holds an unpopular view that’s certain to rattle many pro-biofuel policymakers.

“I completely understand what I did and how disruptive it potentially is,” he says with a resigned laugh, referring to his research recently published in the journal Climatic Change.

Backed up by data from multiple studies measuring carbon dioxide (CO2) release into the environment, DeCicco declares that the production and use of biofuels are only creating more of the same problems fossil fuels have wreaked on the Earth’s atmosphere, and that simpler methods, such as planting trees, can help counteract climate change right now.

Forests, DeCicco says, are our greatest ally and buffer against the onslaught of global warming.

“The most practical thing we can do is to reforest and regrow forest,” he says. “Let nature regrow its own carbon stocks. On a given piece of land, in most circumstances, the best thing you can do is just let it soak up carbon, as much as it can.”

Scientists and leaders such as former U.S. Vice President and Nobel Prize winner Al Gore have warned for decades that global warming would result in the disastrous floods, wildfires and droughts that are plaguing the world. Climate research has tracked the direct correlation between global warming and increased emissions from transportation and industry. In recent years, a large part of the problem has also been the cutting down of forests worldwide to make way for biofuel crops.

DeCicco dissects “the same data that everybody has,” but backtracks to where CO release into the air begins. His full carbon cycle analysis starts, logically, all the way from the farmer preparing land for fields of biofuel corn to the COexiting vehicle tailpipes.

DeCicco asserts that the biofuels have been promoted fanatically because of a less than thoughtful examination of the COdata. When proponents speak of biofuel, a key talking-point is its “carbon-neutrality.” That means the amount of COthat vehicles release is balanced out by the amount a field of biofuel plants can remove from the air through photosynthesis.

Pine needles

DeCicco’s analysis shows that, from farm to tailpipe, the claim that biofuels such as ethanol are helpful to the environment “is just plain incorrect.” His research points out what should be obvious: there is no virtue in turning a non-petroleum product into fuel, if creating it is adding more CO2 into the atmosphere in the process.

In 2008, Princeton research scholar Tim Searchinger and his team published a study in Science, warning that, over a 30-year span, biofuels work out to release twice as much CO2 as an equal amount of gasoline would, worsening global warming. According to information posted on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s website, 28% of greenhouse gas emissions came from transportation in 2011. As of last year, 90% of the fuel used for transportation was still gasoline and diesel, with ethanol accounting for the remaining sliver of ten percent.

While much research has focused on how to extract biofuels from various, products — everything from alligator fat to used coffee grounds — the current technology is nowhere near where it would need to be to make a positive impact toward mitigating climate change, DeCicco says.

In addition, DeCicco explains that another widespread myth about biofuel is that it has no emissions.

“The amount of carbon that actually comes out of a tailpipe is pretty much the same because that’s just combustion chemistry,” he says.

In September, researchers at the University of Cincinnati announced that the amount of biodiesel they were able to extract from coffee grounds was potentially comparable with that of soybeans grown for the same purpose. Depending on the type of coffee, between 10-20% of grounds yielded crude oil, which the researchers converted into biofuel.

To give an idea of how much oil a 20% yield is, make six cups of coffee with Starbucks’ recommended twelve tablespoons of grounds. From those grounds, about 2.4 tablespoons of crude oil can be extracted. It’s not bad, but it’s not enough, once every step of the process is factored in: the fuel needed to collect and transport the grounds to a biorefinery, the fuel energy used to extract the oil and convert it into biofuel, the fuel needed to transport the biofuel to gas stations.

“With certain kinds of organic waste products, be it coffee grounds or crop residues, yes, turning them into a fuel could be potentially beneficial,” DeCicco says. “But, it could also be beneficial to use them to rebuild soil carbon. And that might be economically superior, and you might be releasing less CO2 along the way because less processing is involved.”

DeCicco lauds the efforts of researchers who examine alternative sources of energy. But he says policymakers have jumped ahead of reality in most cases, wreaking more environmental havoc in the race to reduce petroleum use.

“The fact of the matter is that mankind has yet to figure out how to beat photosynthesis. The most efficient CO2 removal mechanism that we know of is photosynthesis,” he says. “So, the moral of the story is, we have to use the photosynthesis that is taking CO2 out of the air — because nature evolved that way — and use that wisely.”

DeCicco reaffirms that there are relatively simple ways to approach global warming in the present. Requiring carmakers to continue to create more fuel-efficient vehicles is one way; using mass transportation, walking or biking when possible, is another. And then again, there’s planting trees where they once grew.

“I live in Michigan,” DeCicco begins. “They grow a lot of corn and soybeans here like in a lot of the Midwest. Michigan used to be covered with forest. And if we let those forests regrow, that takes a long time, and that’s probably the best thing we could do with that land from a carbon-balance perspective for many, many years.”

To read Prof. John DeCicco’s research study on biofuels from Climatic Change, click here. To read his article on biofuels in Yale Environment 360, click here.

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