BEIJING (Reuters) - Most crops grown in the United States and Europe to make a “green” alternative transport fuel actually speed up global warming because of industrial farming methods, says a report by Nobel prize winning chemist Paul J. Crutzen.
The findings could spell special worries for alternative fuels derived from rapeseed, used in Europe, which the study concluded could produce up to 70 percent more planet-warming greenhouse gases than conventional diesel.
It suggested scientists and farmers focus on crops needing little fertilizer and harvesting methods that were not energy intensive in order to produce benefits for the environment.
Biofuels are derived from plants which absorb the planet-warming greenhouse gas carbon dioxide as they grow, and so are meant as a climate-friendly substitute for fossil fuels.
But the new study shows that some biofuels actually release more greenhouse gases than they save, because of the fertilizer used in modern farming practices.
The problem greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide, is more famous as the dentists’ anesthetic “laughing gas”, and is about 300 times more insulating than the commonest man-made greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.
“The nitrous oxide emission on its own can cancel out the overall benefit,” co-author Professor Keith Smith told Reuters in a phone interview.
The study casts further doubts on the credibility of biofuels as a climate cure, following the revelation of other unintended side effects such as rainforest clearance and raised food prices, from competing with forests and food for land.
Brazil and the United States produce most of the world’s bioethanol, as a substitute for gasoline, while the European Union is the main supplier of biodiesel.
Using biodiesel derived from rapeseed would produce between 1 and 1.7 times more greenhouse gas than using conventional diesel, the study estimated.
Biofuels derived from sugar cane, as in Brazil, fared better, producing between 0.5 and 0.9 times as much greenhouse gases as gasoline, it found.
Maize is the main biofuels feedstock used in the United States, and produced between 0.9 and 1.5 times the global warming effect of conventional gasoline, it said.
“As it’s used at the moment, bioethanol from maize seems to be a pretty futile exercise,” Smith said.
The study did not account for the extra global warming effect of burning fossil fuels in biofuel manufacture, or for the planet-cooling effect of using biofuel by-products as a substitute for coal in electricity generation.
“Even if somebody decides that our numbers are too big ... if you add together the undoubted amount of nitrous oxide that is formed, plus the fossil fuel usage, with most of the biofuels of today you are not going to get any benefit,” Smith said.
However the study did not condemn all biofuels, suggesting that scientists and farmers should focus on crops needing little fertilizer, and harvesting methods that were not energy intensive.
“In future if you use low nitrogen demanding crops, and low impact agriculture, then we could get a benefit,” Smith said.
The study singled out grasses and woody coppice species — like willows and poplars — as crops with potentially more favorable impacts on the climate.
Nitrogen makes up a large portion of the atmosphere, and is a vital component for the growth of plants. Massive production of synthetic fertilizer, in a 20th century “green revolution” has almost doubled the amount of nitrogen in the global system, adding nearly 100 million tonnes, said Smith.
“That has increased the production of nitrous oxide.”
Additional reporting by Nigel Hunt in London