In the alternative energy circles, a recent Science magazine online article published by a group from Minnesota has been making a lot of waves in the media. This article from the Seattle Times is typical of the coverage. There are a couple of issues with both the article and the coverage of the article that I’d to point out.
First, let me tackle the article. While no one will argue that corn ethanol is an extremely poor choice for a biofuel feedstock, it is also inarguable that the article focused on current biofuel technology. This implicitly assumes that all new biofuels will be roughly equally bad for the environment. Clearly, this is not the case, since algal-derived biodiesel and similar biomass-derived fuels will not contribute equally to global warming through the destruction of ecosystems. The article also assumed by implication that biofuels are the primary driver behind conversion of ecosystems to cropland. Past data would indicate that this is almost certainly not the case, since slash-and-burn was prevalent in the Amazon basin well before biofuels become a cause celebre. The issues around land use in the developing world would exist with or without biofuels contributing, since there is rarely an incentive for the governments who control these lands to preserve them. Rain forests do not yield significant economic benefit to those who live near them. All the biofuel boom has done is exacerbate the situation. Hopefully, this will bring attention to dealing with the root causes of the destruction of these ecosystems – namely, food security and poverty.
The media has been largely guilty of indulging in shrill hachet jobs on the nascent biofuel industry based on this article. I am certainly not implying that the authors of the Science report intended this; rather, I think that the natural tendency to want to take potshots at large targets is to blame here. Nevertheless, I think its important that people interested in short term energy development continue to work on capturing energy from biomass. With any luck, we’ll solve both the petroleum problem and the disappearing ecosystems problem at the same time.