Not farming is better for carbon emissions than corn-ethanol

Tree Hugger has one of those articles which show that doing nothing produces fewer carbon emissions than growing corn for ethanol. Well Duh.

Let’s turn this on its head.

 If we stopped using oil-powered vehicles then we would not need to use any gasoline. Yhat sounds plain silly.

 The fact is we have a need to travel, we’re tied to combustion engines, ethanol from corn is the biggest (if not the best) technology we have to reduce gasoline dependence. It’s got to be better than digging up sequestered carbon and squirting it into the atmosphere, and that’s the real point. It is probably no worse than  hydrogen powered vehicles in that respect.

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6 Responses to Not farming is better for carbon emissions than corn-ethanol

  1. Nathan Schock 4 March, 2009 at 5:16 pm #

    Great point, Simon. In addition, this study (like so many out there) uses old data suggesting that corn ethanol is a 20% GHG reduction in comparison to gasoline. Newer research shows that the number for new plants (which is the only kind that could conceivably cause CRP to be converted) is closer to a 50% reduction. That would no doubt impact the findings of the study.

  2. Pradeep 4 March, 2009 at 5:52 pm #

    This JoT cartoon comes to mind:
    http://www.geekculture.com/joyoftech/joyarchives/963.html

    On a more serious note, as I outlined in my guest post, under a cap-and-trade regime, it would be interesting to see if conservation tillage gets preference over converting forests/grasslands to produce corn/cellulosic ethanol.

  3. Kit P 5 March, 2009 at 1:01 am #

    Another ‘no really’ moment. The reason to make electrical with coal is because it works. We can use LCA to find better ways of making electricity than coal assuming that option is available.

    For me the beauty of E10 is that consumers do not have to change and the amount of imported oil is reduced. Figuring out how to do it better is the next step.

  4. Simon Robinson 5 March, 2009 at 10:43 am #

    Pradeep, I like the cartoon so much that I tweeted it. You can find me on Twitter @ Biofuelsimon. Best
    s

  5. Jonathan Stray 7 March, 2009 at 1:26 am #

    “[corn ethanol production] has got to be better than digging up sequestered carbon and squirting it into the atmosphere.”

    No, it doesn’t. Increased corn production means increased agricultural land use. If land that was currently sequestering carbon is cleared, that carbon is released into the atmosphere, and corn ethanol can easily be carbon-positive for decades. Corn farming in particular also causes extremely damaging fertilizer runoff, e.g. the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

    In many cases, corn ethanol production is so environmentally harmful that burning fossil fuels is actually better.

    Sugar-based ethanol usually fares much better because it is much more energy efficient, but you probably already know this.

  6. Simon Robinson 9 March, 2009 at 9:35 am #

    Hi Jonathan,

    Thanks for your comment. You’ll know that I’m not a big fan of using corn to make ethanol. I guess that I should have said something about using existing land. You are quite right about carbon sequestered in the soil. It will be interesting to see if an unintended consequence of cellulose from corn ethanol is a slow release of carbon from soils if too much is taken as corn stover/cobs. The issue of fertiliser is important in two ways. Firstly, it is made from fossil fuels, mostly natural gas so it does add to global warming. Secondly, it is not applied in the optimum way, so it does run off. I wonder if anyone is looking at how algae could benefit from this run off to produce biofuels and clean water on the way to the sea?

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