Biofuels Worse for Climate Than Gasoline, New Study Finds
A new study released by the University of Michigan in the Aug. 25 journal of Climate Change is causing a ripple through the fuel industry, as it contends that more carbon dioxide is actually released through biofuels than gasoline.
Biofuels were always pegged as being more environmentally friendly because it was assumed they emitted little to no carbon when being grown. The study challenges this assumption.
"To verify the extent to which that assumption is true, you really need to analyze what's going on on the farmland, where the biofuels are being grown," University of Michigan Energy Institute research professor and study author John DeCicco told The Detroit Free Press.
"People haven't done that in the past—they felt like they didn't need to."
The study incorporates tailpipe emissions and crop growth—which are instrumental in the growing of crops used for biofuels—and found that carbon emissions during that period actually only absorbed 37 percent of biofuel production from 2005 to 2013, directly contradicting previous studies that claimed that using biofuels emitted less carbon than using gasoline.
Promotion of biofuel use is based on what's known as the lifecycle analysis, which contends that CO2 released when the fuel is burned originates from carbon dioxide that biofuels removed from the atmosphere during the photosynthetic process.
"When you look at what's actually happening on the land, you find that not enough carbon is being removed from the atmosphere to balance what's coming out of the tailpipe," DeCicco said. "[Biofuels] is unambiguously worse than petroleum gasoline," he added.
To calculate carbon emissions, DeCicco employed his Annual Basis Carbon method, which counts carbon emissions using chemistry of the location where it is generated. It differs from the lifecycle analysis in that it incorporates the stock-and-flow nature of the carbon cycle.
The use of biofuel and other products, including ethanol, tripled from 4.2 billion gallons in 2005 to 14.6 billion gallons in 2013, supported by the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard and California's Low-Carbon Fuel Standard to promote these types of fuels for transportation purposes. Biofuels, usually consisting of corn or soybeans, accounted for approximately 6 percent of all fuel sources in the U.S. in 2013.
Emily Cassidy, a research analyst with the Environmental Working Group, welcomed the report, saying the Renewable Fuel Standard needs to be looked at more closely.
"There is mounting evidence that the Renewable Fuel Standard has been bad for the environment and the climate, and this paper is a new take on that," she told The Detroit Free Press.
Other scientists are taking issue with the study, pointing out that it was funded by the American Petroleum Institute.
DeCicco said the API was the only group willing to finance the study, and emphasized that the report is peer-reviewed.
Others are critiquing the study's short-sightedness. Harvard University geologist Daniel Schrag told Climate Central that eight years is not sufficient to measure bioenergy's ultimate contribution to improving the climate.
"In the long run, there's no question that biofuels replacing petroleum is a benefit," he said.
Choosing a timeline on which to measure biofuels' impact is one of the key difficulties in determining the actual benefit of using biofuels, and is the subject of continuing debate at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The University of Michigan report only focused on the eight years in question. However, other scientists contend that the benefit to biofuel use is that the increased number of crops will suck in excess carbon dioxide emitted by biofuel production.
Another biofuel supporter, Jim Zook, contends that other studies have decisively shown that biofuels substantially lower greenhouse emissions, compared to gasoline. Zook is the executive director of the Corn Marketing Program of Michigan and Michigan Corn Growers Association.
To Zook, biofuels have an added advantage: they produce a byproduct which can then be used for a high-protein livestock feed.
"We are actually getting more products by going through the ethanol process, and being better stewards of our resources by doing that," Zook told the Detroit Free Press.
Princeton University researcher Timothy Searchinger has long criticized biofuels as a less than ideal solution to curb increasing carbon emissions.
"The U.S. is not coming close to offsetting the carbon released by burning biofuels through additional crop growth," Searchinger told Climate Central.
The controversial study was published shortly after Reuters reported that the EPA has not issued a report to Congress on the environmental impact of the Renewable Fuel Standard since 2011. Federal law mandates the EPA provide a report every three years.
The EPA said it will complete a report by the end of next year. The reports are used to set the amounts of biofuels that must be incorporated into American diesel and gasoline supplies each year.
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By Alexandra Rowles
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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