Biofuels

WRI's Searchinger says land and crops should not be used for bioenergy production, biofuels not curbing climate change

As Congress debates the future of the renewable fuel standard and biofuels continue to face political hurdles, the World Resources Institute's latest report on bioenergy production makes the case against using land and crops for bioenergy and contends biofuels are not helping to curb climate change. During today's OnPoint, Timothy Searchinger, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute and lead author of the report, discusses the research and the impact he believes it should have on policy discussions.

Transcript

Monica Trauzzi: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Monica Trauzzi. With me today is Tim Searchinger, a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute and a research scholar at Princeton University. Tim, it's nice to have you on the show.

Timothy Searchinger: Thank you having me.

Monica Trauzzi: So, Tom, WRI recently released research demonstrating why you believe land and crops should not be dedicated to producing bioenergy. This is a significant report at a very politically dynamic time for biofuels. Ultimately why did you come to this conclusion?

Timothy Searchinger: Well, there are a couple reasons and they're related. One is basically the world is already full. We use about three-quarters of all the world's land to harvest plant material of some kind or another, and we need 70 percent more of almost everything -- more food, more timber, more grass for livestock -- by 2050. So there first of all really isn't a lot of land for anything else. And secondly, whenever you use land for bioenergy, you're not using it for something else. And bioenergy is a remarkably inefficient way of using land, so while we need land desperately for all these other purposes, including carbon storage, bioenergy gets a very small amount of energy for a large amount of land.

So for example, there are people who suggest we should have a goal of having 20 percent of global energy from bioenergy by 2050. That would require that we divert 100 percent of all the plants we harvest on the planet today: all the crops, all the grass fed to livestock, all the timber that we harvest. And obviously we would continue to need to eat that food -- in fact we need 70 percent more -- so that means you would have to convert a lot more land from forest and other ways of storing carbon to producing plants for our use.

Monica Trauzzi: And that's still the case even with bringing more advanced biofuels online?

Timothy Searchinger: Yeah. So I mean, even if you don't use crops, if you're using land, that land is not being used for another purpose. So it doesn't really matter if you're using good cropland to grow corn or if you're using good cropland to grow switchgrass. And in fact it's actually going to be very, very hard to produce even more ethanol from switchgrass or another grass than corn. We did some calculations. You'd have to dramatically improve upon even EPA estimates for how much switchgrass you will grow, and basically to match corn ethanol you'd have to increase by four times the rate of growth of grasses today.

Monica Trauzzi: Talk about the climate change element of your research, and why are you contending that biofuels production will not help curb emissions?

Timothy Searchinger: Yeah, in our view the view that bioenergy reduces emissions has basically been based on double counting. So when you burn a biofuel you're actually emitting carbon into the air. And in fact you have to emit at least a little bit more carbon directly from your tailpipe or from the smokestack above a factory than when you burn fossil fuels. So you say, "Well, why do you we think that biofuels reduce greenhouse gas emissions?" The answer is that growing plants absorbs carbon from the air, and so some people think bioenergy is just carbon recycling. But the problem is that land is growing plants anyway. We're already growing plants on our land and using them, and the only way to have biofuels that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, except by let's say taking food away from us, is to produce more plants. But most of the time we don't try to produce more plants. So when we divert corn to ethanol, we're just diverting a plant that would grow anyway on good corn land in Iowa into ethanol production. That's not more plant growth. And it's going to be hard to produce more plants because it's extremely inefficient. As I said -- I'll give you just another statistic. Sugar cane ethanol, which is the most productive plant on the planet today, that actually only converts 0.2 percent of solar radiation into the energy in the ethanol. If you put a photovoltaic on that same land today, you're going to get on a net basis at least 11 percent, so basically 50 times more even for sugar cane land.

Monica Trauzzi: Can the inefficiency hurdle be changed through technology advancements?

Timothy Searchinger: Not really. I mean, photosynthesis is essentially extremely limited and you need good land. So the example I gave is the best land. On 25 percent of the world's land photovoltaics will produce more than 5,000 as much energy. So yeah, you can modestly improve through genetic engineering or otherwise the productivity of plants, but at the same time photovoltaics actually will go up probably even more.

Monica Trauzzi: So this comes at a time when the U.S. renewable fuel standard is under quite a bit of fire in Congress. Based on what you've reported through this research, what would your policy recommendations be then for the RFS?

Timothy Searchinger: Yeah, well, we basically recommend getting away with our at least phasing out any government policies that encourage the direct use of land for biofuels or for bioenergy. The land is simply too precious and too much needed for other purposes. So that's basically it. I mean, there is some capacity to make biofuels from waste products, maybe some residue, some garbage, but it's modest. And that's probably also something for a later day. We have much more cost-effective strategies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and making more energy today.

Monica Trauzzi: So if we're not using bioenergy, then what can we use to replace those energy needs?

Timothy Searchinger: So for a long time people would ask me that question and say, "Hey, smartass, what do you think is your solution?" And I'm not an energy guy as much as I'm a land and agriculture guy, but actually I no longer say that. And the reason is that photovoltaics and other forms of solar energy have become so much more efficient and so much more practical that obviously they are going to be the solution. As I said -- and we analyze that on three-quarters of the world's land you could produce at least 100 times more energy using today's photovoltaics than we are likely to be able to produce using bioenergy in the future if we have improved technology. And photovoltaics keep getting more efficient all the time. They get cheaper all the time. It is the only way of using direct rays of the sun to make energy that could possibly provide a significant fraction of our energy.

Monica Trauzzi: So this is not the first time that you've sort of sounded the alarms on biofuels production. The biofuels industry, renewable fuels industry says you're rehashing the same arguments. What kind of response has this research gotten?

Timothy Searchinger: Well, some of the material is new; some of the material is older. But the key thing that people haven't really focused on is this double counting, that most of the time when people think that plants benefit the environment, they're just assuming that land would otherwise not exist or wouldn't grow plants otherwise. And that's what the more modern research has kind of focused on, and it's actually something that the Science Advisory Board of the EPA has stressed. And an even more acute issue than the renewable fuel standard is that the EPA is struggling right now to decide for its greenhouse gas regulations whether power plants should be credited just with replacing coal by cutting down trees and putting them in their power plants -- it's not residue, it's just cutting down trees. And the argument for some is that that's a free carbon, but when you take carbon from a tree and you cut it down and you put it in the air you're adding carbon to the air, and that's a result of the same kind of thinking that plants are automatically free, when they're not. Plants are not free. They're quite precious. And so a lot of the focus is beyond biofuels in this report. It's on bioenergy generally.

Monica Trauzzi: All right, we're going to end it right there. Thank you for coming on the show -- very interesting.

Timothy Searchinger: Thank you very much.

Monica Trauzzi: And thanks for watching. We'll see you back here tomorrow.

[End of Audio]

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