Be Careful What You Wish For…

by Iain Murray on March 16, 2010

For many years, the climate alarmist movement pushed the development of corn ethanol as the “fuel of the future” on the grounds that it would decrease fossil fuel emissions. As I detail in my book, The Really Inconvenient Truths, massive efforts were devoted to promoting this technology, with a textbook baptist-bootlegger alliance between green groups and Big Corn (most notably Archer Daniels Midland).  Politicians joined in happily, with Al Gore stumping for Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar because of her support for ethanol and countless Presidential candidates in Iowa talking up the fuel.

The result of that push has, it seems, been an increase in fossil fuels.  For the latest on this, see Corned grief: biofuels may increase CO2 at Watts Up With That?

The indirect effects of increasing production of maize ethanol were first addressed in 2008 by Timothy Searchinger and his coauthors, who presented a simpler calculation in Science. Searchinger concluded that burning maize ethanol led to greenhouse gas emissions twice as large as if gasoline had been burned instead. The question assumed global importance because the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act mandates a steep increase in US production of biofuels over the next dozen years, and certifications about life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions are needed for some of this increase. In addition, the California Air Resources Board’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard requires including estimates of the effects of indirect land-use change on greenhouse gas emissions. The board’s approach is based on the work reported in BioScience.

Hertel and colleagues’ analysis incorporates some effects that could lessen the impact of land-use conversion, but their bottom line, though only one-quarter as large as the earlier estimate of Searchinger and his coauthors, still indicates that the maize ethanol now being produced in the United States will not significantly reduce total greenhouse gas emissions, compared with burning gasoline. The authors acknowledge that some game-changing technical or economic development could render their estimates moot, but sensitivity analyses undertaken in their study suggest that the findings are quite robust.

Promotion of technologies based on theory rather than practice has been a hallmark of the green movement. Every indication seems to be that their foolish promotion of ethanol has been written out of their history, rather than being treated as a cautionary tale to learn from.

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