INSIGHT: US public begins to question biofuels

10 April 2008 13:16  [Source: ICIS news]

The tide may be changing on US climate change issuesBy Joe Kamalick


WASHINGTON (ICIS news)--Recent US news reports have challenged popular and congressional wisdom about global warming but the reports were significant more for their venue than content - and they suggest a small but telling shift in public opinion.


Citing various scholars and scientists, the news reports said that biofuels might not be the panacea for US energy and environmental problems and that emissions caps might damage the US economy without any effect on climate change. 


None of this is very new stuff, really, and has been reported here and elsewhere on ICIS news, other focused media and government studies for considerable time.


However, these new challenging reports appeared in recent issues of Time magazine and The New York Times, two news outlets that are hip-deep in the US mainstream.  The fact that those grand dames of US media are questioning basic tenets of climate change philosophy indicates that a sea change in opinion may be under way.


Perhaps most surprising and damning was the Time magazine story of 27 March titled "The Clean Energy Myth" on the newsstand magazine’s cover and “The Clean Energy Scam” on its Web site.


In it, author Michael Grunwald baldly proclaimed: “Biofuels aren’t part of the solution [to global warming], they’re part of the problem”.


“Renewable fuels has become one of those motherhood-and-apple-pie catchphrases, as unobjectionable as the troops or the middle class,” Grunwald wrote.


“But several new studies show the biofuel boom is doing exactly the opposite of what its proponents intended,” the Time report said.  On the contrary, “it is dramatically accelerating global warming, imperilling the planet in the name of saving it”.


“Corn ethanol, always environmentally suspect, turns out to be environmentally disastrous. Even cellulosic ethanol made from switch grass, which has been promoted by eco-activists and eco-investors as well as by President Bush as the fuel of the future, looks less green than oil-derived gasoline,” the story added.


Citing a study reported in Science magazine, Time said that when carbon-storing forests in developing countries such as Brazil were razed to grow biofuel feedstock, “corn ethanol and soy biodiesel produce about twice the emissions of gasoline”.


“Sugarcane ethanol is much cleaner and biofuels created from waste products that don't gobble up land have real potential but even cellulosic ethanol increases overall emissions when its plant source is grown on good cropland,” Time said, concluding: “It turns out that the carbon lost when wilderness is razed overwhelms the gains from cleaner-burning fuels.”


In its 6 April edition, The New York Times said in a story headlined “A Shift in the Debate Over Global Warming” that the popular policy goal of imposing caps on greenhouse gas emissions to force energy conservation and spur non-polluting technologies is now doubtful.


“Now, with recent data showing an unexpected rise in global emissions and a decline in energy efficiency, a growing chorus of economists, scientists and students of energy policy are saying that whatever benefits the cap approach yields, it will be too little and come too late,” the Times said.


This comes as no surprise to Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico, the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy Committee, who told an energy conference in Washington this week that emissions caps simply do not work.


“In 2006, our [US] carbon dioxide emissions declined by 1.3% while carbon dioxide emissions of the European Union, under a cap-and-trade system, increased by 1% to 1.5%,” Domenici said.


The Times story cited a Scientific American article by Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, who also argued emissions caps would not work.


Sachs, who heads the Earth Institute at Columbia, said: “Even with a cutback in wasteful energy spending, our current technologies cannot support both a decline in carbon dioxide emissions and an expanding global economy.”


“If we try to restrain emissions without a fundamentally new set of technologies, we will end up stifling economic growth, including the development prospects for billions of people,” Sachs said. “The key is new low-carbon technology, not simply energy efficiency.”


These arguments against the environmental value of biofuels and the efficacy of mandatory emissions control measures are not new and they face counter-challenges from environmental circles but the fact that they are beginning to percolate in the mainstream US media is noteworthy.


In addition, a new survey by the John Brademas Center for the Study of Congress at New York University suggested popular concern about global warming was beginning to ebb. 


According to the centre, the number of people who said they were "very worried" or "somewhat worried" about climate change fell from 70% in 2006 to 67% this year.


As reported by Environment & Energy Daily, the centre’s survey also found that the percentage of Americans who believe global warming requires immediate legislative action also declined over the same two-year period, from 77% to 69%.


To be sure, these are not major shifts in public sentiment, but the survey results and mainstream media challenges to what once were sacred cows of US environmental policy suggest that the issue may have peaked.


Even so slight a change in public perception of global warming and climate change issues could be telling, however, because in the hallowed halls of Congress public sentiment is everything, routinely and consistently trumping even science and fact. 


However modest, a slide in public concern about and support for climate control measures could impact legislation now before Congress that would impose what most officials in US industry and manufacturing believe would be an economy-killing cap and trade mandate.

By: Joe Kamalick
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