Global Warming and the Minefield of Unintended Consequences

Dubner and Levitt recently wrote a column discussing the unintended consequences of legislation intended to help the neediest segments of society.

Few movements for change have met with as many unintended consequences as the efforts, both in the public and private sector, to combat global warming. Take biofuels (another topic Dubner has addressed here and here). Hailed as the darling of the alternative fuel market, this new energy source, led by the most popular form, ethanol, was declared the solution to burning fossil fuels in 2006. It has since been embraced by companies from luxury car makers to airlines. To meet the growing demand for ethanol, U.S. farmers and agribusiness firms invested millions in growing corn (a move that has already come back to bite them financially). Biofuels have become such a staple of international plans to combat climate change, reports the Times, that governments are even legislating and subsidizing their use:

The EU has mandated that countries use 5.75 percent biofuel for transport by the end of 2008. In the United States, a proposed energy package would require that 15 percent of all transport fuels be made from biofuel by 2022. To reach these goals, biofuels production is heavily subsidized at many levels on both continents.

Fantastic! A worldwide movement to cut emissions and halt what a growing number of scientists call a massive global crisis. Except it all hit a roadblock last week, when two newly-released studies reported that the net environmental effect of using biofuels may be even more harmful than burning the gasoline they were created to replace.

The first study, led by Princeton University environment and economics researcher Timothy Searchinger, found that replacing fossil fuels with corn-based ethanol could actually double greenhouse gas emissions for the next thirty years. As Scientific American writer David Biello explains it:

“Prior analyses made an accounting error,” says [Searchinger]. … “There is a huge imbalance between the carbon lost by plowing up a hectare [2.47 acres] of forest or grassland from the benefit you get from biofuels.”

Growing plants store carbon in their roots, shoots and leaves. As a result, the world’s plants and the soil in which they grow contain nearly three times as much carbon as the entire atmosphere. …

By turning crops such as corn, sugarcane and palm oil into biofuels – whether ethanol, biodiesel, or something else – proponents hope to reap the benefits of the carbon soaked up as the plants grow to offset the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted when the resulting fuel is burned. But whether biofuels emit more or less CO2 than gasoline depends on what the land they were grown on was previously used for…

The second study, led by Joseph Fargione, a scientist at the Nature Conservancy, found that by switching to biofuels, we could essentially be worsening climate change for the next 93 years, in that “[t]he clearance of grassland releases 93 times the amount of greenhouse gas that would be saved by the fuel made annually on that land,” according to the Times. Not to mention the fact that, by switching to growing corn, U.S. farmers have turned away from growing other crops, such as soy. As a result, Fargione told the Times, “‘Brazilian farmers are planting more of the world’s soybeans – and they’re deforesting the Amazon to do it.’”

So in a matter of days, biofuels go from a celebrated fossil fuels alternative to a rainforest-killing disaster, with scientists already calling for government reform on biofuel policies. If anything, this provides a window into how little we actually know about this issue, and the wide lengths left to go in reaching a viable solution.

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  1. mgroves says:

    All of this is begging the question that there is a global crisis in the first place. It’s *all* nonsense if anthropological global warming doesn’t exist (or its effect is trivially small).

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  2. Nick says:

    mgroves has used the phrase “begging the question” correctly. I believe that is an Internet first.

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  3. jonathan says:

    It’s like when the guys approach me on the street with a picture of a polar bear and ask if I want to contribute to saving them by stopping global warming. As noted elsewhere in the NYT, we shoot somewhere over 40 polar bears a year just around Hudson’s Bay. That number far exceeds those which would be saved in any year in that area by slowing global warming.

    Remember the Corps of Engineeers? For decades they straightened out rivers, even lining areas with concrete to improve flow. Oops.

    Or as Fitzgerald closed The Great Gatsby with, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

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  4. LarryDan says:

    Corn is horrible for the topsoil. I really wish they could find another crop that could be grown here and produce ethanol…anything but corn.

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  5. Holly says:

    Has anyone done any kind of study claiming that conserving fuel actually costs us money? I base this on two facts – 1- we will come up with another fuel just about the time we run out of oil and 2-you get less for your buck with each passing year. SO say the price of gas does not go up (!)- a gallon of gas in today’s dollars is $3, in 5 years, that $3 will only buy 2/3 of a gallon…..we know we’re gonna run out anyway, so let’s use it up in today’s dollars and get on to the next fuel source…..

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  6. Robert L. says:

    The extreme Greens look at every suggestion and first ask “what harm could do it do?” You’ve given examples relating to ethanol, but environmental groups in California are suing to shut down wind turbines (birds fly into them) and are already looking askance at proposed wave power (whales might swim into the buoy cables). There is also knee jerk opposition to hydroelectric dams and, of course, nuclear power. Fundamentally the extreme green agenda is not anti-green house gas, it is anti-growth. The Breakthrough guys, Ted Nordhaus and Micheal Shellengerger, have done an excellent examination of this mind set, and why it won’t work, in their book and on their blog. Even though I disagree with them about the causes of global warming, I highly recommend their book and their website.

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  7. This Man Must Be Stopped says:

    Here’s a dandy crop for ethanol – sugar cane. In countries that produce sugar cane, they’re finding that it’s more profitable to convert it into ethanol than to sell it as sugar.

    That can’t currently happen in the U.S., because our myopic sugar tariffs keep the price of this crop artificially high. So what do we use for sweetener instead? High fructose corn syrup. But if corn’s being subsidized and used for ethanol, then its price is going up as well…

    How about we drop the dumb tariffs, get this corn stuff out of our sodas and foods, and produce some better ethanol while we’re at it?

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  8. Shan says:

    I don’t know why it took people so long to realize this. I’ve been saying this for years… it’s pretty simple. As cool as biofuel sounds, it just sets off the filter: if you suddenly start growing a bunch of something that wasn’t being grown otherwise, it will lead to consequences. We can wait and find out about the consequences or figure it out now… with oil and coal, we had to wait to find out. Biofuels are basically just organic material, just like oil.

    The real breakthroughs will happen if the Hydrogen fuel cell can be implemented efficiently, but that is seeming like it might have a negative net effect too.

    Honestly, we just need to admit that it’s too late to stop global warming. In the last year, our CO2 emissions actually went up despite all of the media attention. Even if we can drastically reduce CO2 emissions, they’ll still be excessive and all we’re doing is delaying the inevitable by a few years.

    Instead of trying to combat something that is inevitable, we should be focusing our resources on trying to adapt. Whether global warming is real or not, the climate change is very real… and instead of hopelessly trying to stop it, we should be trying to figure out how we’ll survive it.

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