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Studies Say Current Biofuel Practices Worsening Climate Change

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Clearing land to produce biofuels such as ethanol will do more to exacerbate global warming than using gasoline or other fossil fuels, two scientific studies show.

The independent analyses, which will be published today in the journal Science, could force policymakers in the United States and Europe to reevaluate incentives they have adopted to spur production of ethanol-based fuels. President Bush and many members of Congress have touted expanding biofuel use as an integral element of the nation's battle against climate change, but these studies suggest that this strategy will damage the planet rather than help protect it.

One study -- written by a group of researchers from Princeton University, Woods Hole Research Center and Iowa State University along with an agriculture consultant -- concluded that over 30 years, use of traditional corn-based ethanol would produce twice as much greenhouse gas emissions as regular gasoline. Another analysis, written by a Nature Conservancy scientist along with University of Minnesota researchers, found that converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas or grasslands in Southeast Asia and Latin America to produce biofuels will increase global warming pollution for decades, if not centuries.

Tim Searchinger, who conducts research at Princeton and the D.C-based German Marshall Fund of the United States, said the research he and his colleagues did is the first to reveal the hidden environmental cost of producing biofuels.

"The land we're likely to plow up is the land that we've had taking up carbon for decades," said Searchinger, the lead author. Estimating that it would take 167 years before biofuel would stop contributing to climate change, he added, "We can't get to a result, no matter how heroically we make assumptions on behalf of corn ethanol, where it will actually generate greenhouse-gas benefits."

Researchers said the findings applied to other forms of ethanol-based fuel as well, at emissions rates that varied depending on the nature of the land being converted and the crop being grown on it, with sugar cane ranking as the most efficient. The results of the studies are significant because industrialized countries are pushing so aggressively to boost biofuel production as an alternative to gasoline. The recently passed energy bill mandated the production of 36 billion gallons of biofuels annually by 2022, compared with about 7.5 billion gallons today. Just last month, the European Union's Transport Ministry proposed a directive calling on member countries to power 10 percent of their transportation with biofuels.

The studies emphasized the time it would take to pay back the "carbon debt" created by clearing land to grow biofuel crops, in the words of Joe Fargione, central region science director for the Nature Conservancy, but biofuel industry officials -- as well as administration and congressional officials -- said it is unfair to judge ethanol in its current form, because the industry continues to make technological advances. 

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