Thursday, October 29, 2009
The Politics of Energy #29 - Sins of Emission
(Editor's Note: How would you like accounting rules that allowed you to ignore the costs of your raw materials procurement and that exempted you from responsibility for the downstream polluting effects of your products? Welcome to the fantasy world of government subsidized ethanol production.)
Donning FDR's cape, Eisenhower's stripes and JFK's boat shoes, President Obama observed in Florida on Tuesday that his "clean energy economy" will require "mobilization" on the order of fighting World War II, building the interstate highway system and going to the moon. Of course, the only "mobilization" going on at the moment is on behalf of ethanol, whose many political dispensations the biofuels lobby is finding new ways to preserve even as the evidence of its destructiveness piles up.
The latest embarrassment arrives via the peer-reviewed journal Science, not known for its right-wing inclinations. A new paper calls attention to what the authors (led by Princeton's Tim Searchinger) call "a critical accounting error" in the way carbon emissions from biofuels are measured in climate-change programs world-wide. Bernie Madoff had a few critical accounting errors too.
Though you won't hear it from the biofuels lobby, ethanol actually generates the same amount of greenhouse gas as fossil fuels, or more, per unit of energy. But this was still supposed to be better than coal or oil because ethanol's CO2 is "recycled." Since plants absorb and store carbon that is already in the atmosphere, burning them as fuel would create no new emissions, whereas fossil fuels release CO2 that has been buried for millions of years.
With everything supposedly balancing out, the cap-and-trade programs run by the United Nations and European Union—and maybe soon the U.S.—treat biofuels as carbon-neutral. The Science study argues that this is a false economy, because it doesn't consider changes in land use. If mature forests are cleared to make room for biofuel-growing farms, then the carbon that would otherwise accumulate in those forests ought to be counted on ethanol's balance sheet as well.
Cap-and-trade programs exacerbate the problem because developed countries (where emissions are putatively capped) get credit for reductions from ethanol—despite the fact that their biofuels are generally grown in developing countries (where emissions aren't capped). So if Malaysians burn down a rain forest to grow palm oil that ends up in German biodiesel, Malaysia doesn't count the land-use emissions and Germany doesn't count the tail-pipe emissions.
Given these incentives, the authors cite a study showing that by 2050, "based solely on economic considerations, bioenergy could displace 59% of the world's natural forest cover. . . . The reason: When bioenergy from any biomass is counted as carbon neutral, economics favor large-scale land conversion for bioenergy regardless of the actual net emissions." In other words, not only is cap and trade self-defeating on its own terms but it also risks creating a genuine ecological disaster.
By way of a solution, Mr. Searchinger and his coauthors modestly suggest doing away with the regulatory three-card monte and counting net ethanol emissions from where they are actually emitted. But this is political heresy on Rep. Henry Waxman's Energy and Commerce Committee, which passed its own cap-and-tax program in July with the votes of farm-state Democrats, because the bill all but banned the Environmental Protection Agency from studying land-use changes. So much for letting "the science" guide public policy.
In Florida, Mr. Obama said the only people who could oppose his climate plan are "those who are afraid of the future." On this one, at least, the President is right.
The Wall Street Journal
Posted by Richard Wottrich at 6:12 AM