The University of Michigan researchers conducted a study which shows that biofuels can be just as dangerous to climate change as conventional combustibles. The burn of biofuels ends with more carbon dioxide than gasoline burn.
Biofuels had been considered to be more environmental friendly as they emitted almost no carbon while being grown. However, the researchers challenged that assumption and measured the complete process that leads to their creation.
The Biofuels Study
The measurements focused on the processes that take place on farmland, such as the tailpipe emissions.
The conclusion was that from 2005 to 2013 the carbon emissions absorbed only 37% of the biofuel production. The result contradicts other studies that claimed that biofuels helped reducing emissions.
The previous studies used an approach called lifecycle analysis and showed that the carbon dioxide released when the biofuel is burnt would be composed by the very CO2 that the plants removed from the atmosphere during their growth, through their photosynthetic processes.
The new study showed that the quantity of carbon captured during plant growth is not balanced by the amount of CO2 emitted after the fuel is burnt.
The researchers conclude that biofuels can be even worse than gasoline.
The study used the Annual Basis Carbon method to calculate the carbon dioxide emissions. The model counts the CO2 by taking into consideration the chemistry of the production place. The method takes into account the stock-and-flow of the carbon cycle, making it a bit different from the lifecycle analysis.
The Implications of the Research
The biofuel use tripled in the eight years to 2013. The US Renewable Fuel Standard and the Low-Carbon Fuel Standard from California have heavily promoted biofuel in transportation. Corn and soybeans accounted for 6% of the total fuel sources in 2013.
The environmental advocates warn that the Renewable Fuel Standard had not the positive results it was intended for, and it would imperiously need to be revised.
However, critics of the study show that the work was funded by the American Petroleum Institute, which might have been a bias for the scientists that conducted the research. The authors said that the institute was the only organism willing to finance the study and that their work was peer-reviewed.
Another argument is that the research was conducted over a short period of time, eight years not being sufficient to measure the benefits of bioenergy. Over decades, the increasing number of crops will help extract the carbon dioxide released by the burn.
Biofuels can have another advantage, related to a byproduct that can be used for livestock feed.
The US Environmental Protection Agency will complete a report by the end of the next year which might also include statistics and new standards for biofuels.
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