For years advocates have touted the use of biofuels as a clean-burning alternative to gasoline. Now a pair of studies published in the February 8 issue of Science conclude that biofuels may do more harm to the environment than good. The researchers calculated the indirect costs of growing the crops that are turned into biofuels. To plant the corn or sugarcane or soybeans from which biodiesel and bioethanol are made, farmers would first need to clear forests and grasslands. That process, it turns out, would actually generate more carbon dioxide than we’d save by swearing off fossil fuels. And it would take centuries for us to pay off that carbon debt.
For example, the scientists figure it would take 319 years of using ethanol made from soybeans to make up for the extra carbon released by chopping down the forests needed to grow the crop. And of course more CO2 in the atmosphere means more global warming. So biofuels might actually exacerbate the problem they’re meant to solve. Something to think about as we move forward on producing ecofriendly fuels. As one of the scientists put it, we should make sure our cure isn’t worse than the disease.