The work will be published in Science later this month and will be posted online Thursday, Feb. 7.
The carbon lost by converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands outweighs the carbon savings from biofuels. Such conversions for corn or sugarcane (ethanol), or palms or soybeans (biodiesel) release 17 to 420 times more carbon than the annual savings from replacing fossil fuels, the researchers said. The carbon, which is stored in the original plants and soil, is released as carbon dioxide, a process that may take decades. This “carbon debt” must be paid before the biofuels produced on the land can begin to lower greenhouse gas levels and ameliorate global warming.
The conversion of peatlands for palm oil plantations in Indonesia ran up the greatest carbon debt, one that would require 423 years to pay off. The next worst case was the production of soybeans in the Amazon, which would not “pay for itself” in renewable soy biodiesel for 319 years.
“We don't have proper incentives in place because landowners are rewarded for producing palm oil and other products but not rewarded for carbon management,” said University of Minnesota Applied Economics professor Stephen Polasky, an author of the study. “This creates incentives for excessive land clearing and can result in large increases in carbon emissions.
“This research examines the conversion of land for biofuels and asks the question ‘Is it worth it"’,” said lead author Joe Fargione, a scientist for The Nature Conservancy. “And surprisingly, the answer is no.”
Fargione began the work as a University of Minnesota postdoctoral researcher with Polasky, Regents Professor of Ecology David Tilman; he completed it after joining the Nature Conservancy. They, along with university researchers Jason Hill and Peter Hawthorne, also contributed to the work.
“If you’re trying to mitigate global warming, it simply does not make sense to convert land for biofuels production,” said Fargione. “All the biofuels we use now cause habitat destruction, either directly or indirectly. Global agriculture is already producing food for six billion people. Producing food-based biofuel, too, will require that still more land be converted to agriculture.”
These findings coincide with observations that increased demand for ethanol corn crops in the United States is likely contributing to conversion of the Brazilian Amazon and Cerrado (tropical savanna). American farmers traditionally rotated corn crops with soybeans, but now they are planting corn every year to meet the ethanol demand and Brazilian farmers are planting more of the world’s soybeans. And they’re deforesting the Amazon to do it.
The researchers also found significant carbon debt in the conversion of grasslands in the United States and rainforests in Indonesia.
Researchers did note that some biofuels do not contribute to global warming because they do not require the conversion of native habitat. These include waste from agriculture and forest lands and native grasses and woody biomass grown on marginal lands unsuitable for crop production. The researchers urge that all fuels be fully evaluated for their impacts on global warming, including impacts on habitat conversion.
“Biofuels made on perennial crops grown on degraded land that is no longer useful for growing food crops may actually help us fight global warming,” said Hill. “One example is ethanol made from diverse mixtures of native prairie plants. Minnesota is well poised in this respect.”
“Creating some sort of incentive for carbon sequestration, or penalty for carbon emissions, from land use is vital if we are serious about addressing this problem,” Polasky said.
“We will need to implement many approaches simultaneously to solve climate change. There is no silver bullet, but there are many silver BBs,” said Fargione. “Some biofuels may be one silver BB, but only if produced without requiring additional land to be converted from native habitats to agriculture.”
Patty Mattern | EurekAlert!
Graphene gives a tremendous boost to future terahertz cameras
16.04.2019 | ICFO-The Institute of Photonic Sciences
Mount Kilimanjaro: Ecosystems in Global Change
28.03.2019 | Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg
Researchers led by Francesca Ferlaino from the University of Innsbruck and the Austrian Academy of Sciences report in Physical Review X on the observation of supersolid behavior in dipolar quantum gases of erbium and dysprosium. In the dysprosium gas these properties are unprecedentedly long-lived. This sets the stage for future investigations into the nature of this exotic phase of matter.
Supersolidity is a paradoxical state where the matter is both crystallized and superfluid. Predicted 50 years ago, such a counter-intuitive phase, featuring...
A stellar flare 10 times more powerful than anything seen on our sun has burst from an ultracool star almost the same size as Jupiter
A localization phenomenon boosts the accuracy of solving quantum many-body problems with quantum computers which are otherwise challenging for conventional computers. This brings such digital quantum simulation within reach on quantum devices available today.
Quantum computers promise to solve certain computational problems exponentially faster than any classical machine. “A particularly promising application is the...
The technology could revolutionize how information travels through data centers and artificial intelligence networks
Engineers at the University of California, Berkeley have built a new photonic switch that can control the direction of light passing through optical fibers...
Physicists observe how electron-hole pairs drift apart at ultrafast speed, but still remain strongly bound.
Modern electronics relies on ultrafast charge motion on ever shorter length scales. Physicists from Regensburg and Gothenburg have now succeeded in resolving a...
17.04.2019 | Event News
15.04.2019 | Event News
09.04.2019 | Event News
23.04.2019 | Information Technology
23.04.2019 | Earth Sciences
23.04.2019 | Life Sciences