Opinion | The climate solution that’s awful for the climate

As America scrambles to generate more renewable electricity, it’s become fashionable to worry that solar and wind farms are using too much land. But America is also racing to produce more renewable fuels, and they’re using much, much more land to replace much, much less fossil fuel.

It is well known that agricultural fuels such as corn ethanol and soy biodiesel accelerate food inflation and world hunger, but they are also a disaster for the climate and the environment. And that’s mostly because they’re inefficient land hogs. It takes about 100 acres of biofuels to generate as much energy as a single acre of solar panels; worldwide, a land mass larger than California was used to grow less than 4% of transportation fuel in 2020.

This is a huge waste of precious land the world needs to store carbon that can stabilize our warming climate and grow crops that can help feed its growing population. The Environmental Protection Agency could help curb that waste when it updates America’s broad mandate that encourages biofuel production later this month. It probably won’t, though, because in Washington, where cornethanolism is one of the last truly bipartisan ideologies, nearly everyone loves to pretend biofuels are green.

America is no longer an agrarian nation, but it remains an article of faith among its political elites that agrarian interests in the heart of the earth require constant subsidies. Government support for blending biofuels into U.S. gasoline is often rationalized on the basis of reducing dependence on foreign oil or saving the climate, but it’s mostly a way to suck farmers and agribusinesses rich. Like direct payments, countercyclical payments, loan shortfall payments, and other US agricultural programs, biofuel subsidies reallocate tax dollars from the 99 percent of Americans who don’t farm to the roughly 1 percent who do.

What distinguishes corn-derived ethanol from most other agricultural wastes is that it diverts crops from bellies to fuel tanks and uses nearly as much fossil fuel from natural gas-based fertilizers to diesel tractors, industrial refineries and other sources as ethanol replaces.

But the most damaging effect of biofuels, first revealed in a 2008 article in the journal Science, is that they increase greenhouse gas emissions through the conversion of carbon-rich forests, wetlands and grasslands into agricultural land, expanding the our agricultural footprint as natures shrink. It was tragic when biofuels seemed like the only plausible alternative to planet-burning gasoline, but it’s unforgivable now that electric vehicles have gotten better, cleaner and cheaper. Biofuels are like a throwback to the horse-and-buggy era, when farmers had to grow millions of acres of oats and hay for transportation fuel, except now the crops are processed through ethanol plants instead of animals.

By 2050, the world will need to produce another 7.4 quadrillion calories each year to fill nearly 10 billion bellies, while ending deforestation and other destruction of wilderness to meet the emission goals of the Paris climate accord. Biofuels make both jobs much more difficult.

But President Biden, like Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump before him, pledged allegiance to ethanol before competing in the Iowa caucus because ethanol mandates drive up the price of corn and win the voters. Presidential candidates John McCain, Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg also withdrew their criticisms of biofuels ahead of the Iowacaucus. An episode of The West Wing caught the dilemma WELL when a presidential candidate who wanted to break the tradition of wooing Iowa farmers with exaggerated promises of ethanol quipped, it’s practically in the Oxford English Dictionary under pandering.

“Bambi would have a better chance of being elected NRA president than you would of getting just one vote in this caucus,” his political aide replied.

As president, Mr. Biden has not yet challenged that logic. Instead, he visited an Iowa ethanol plant last year to brag about the lavish biofuel subsidies in its Inflation Reduction Act and to announce a new waiver that allows more ethanol to be sold during the summer to help lower fuel prices. gas.

But his biggest decision is yet to come: what to do about the renewable fuel standard that has kept the industry afloat since the mid-2000s.

The current standard requires 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol to be blended into U.S. gasoline each year. Since ethanol makes no economic sense without standard profitable credits, America currently blends about 15 billion gallons a year. The standard was also supposed to mandate 21 billion gallons of so-called advanced biofuels produced from grasses, agricultural wastes and other unharvested materials by 2022. But because they are difficult to make cheap even with standard lucrative credits, only about a quarter of the quota was achieved in 2022.

The primary exception has been 2 billion gallons of soybean biodiesel, which Congress has designated as advanced biofuel even if it’s derived from crops, because Congress courts soybean farmers as slavishly as it does corn farmers. In fact, it’s mostly the farmers themselves.

But the rules and volumes Congress created for the Renewable Fuel Standard only extended through 2022, and Bidens’ EPA could easily revise them to advance its climate goals. The agency could limit the standard to biofuels made from leftover restaurant fat, crop residues or other waste products that don’t use farmland. It could create a tougher cap on crop-derived biofuels, as Europe has done. Or it could at least change its approach to take land use more seriously in its emissions analyses. Getting through the farm lobby is never easy, but it can be done: Senator Ted Cruz of Texas chose not to bow to ethanol producers in his 2016 presidential campaign, and still won the Iowa Republican caucus.

For now, the EPA’s proposed rule would actually expand soybean biodiesel, which is even more land-intensive than corn ethanol. And even though corn ethanol is basically moonshine, an ancient libation with a centuries-old history as a fuel, a bipartisan group of House members has also introduced a bill to reclassify corn ethanol as an advanced biofuel in so that it can finally cross the 15 billion gallon threshold.

A cosponsor, Rep. Wesley Hunt, a Republican from Texas, has offered a fun new justification for ethanol at a time when EVs look like the future of transportation: Congress must push programs that encourage the combustion engine internal. Back when internal combustion engines were new, congressmen with pram whip factories in their districts probably supported programs to encourage pram whip. Change can be difficult. Progress doesn’t always benefit everyone equally.

But internal combustion engines don’t need government support, and neither do biofuels. They are climate nightmares masquerading as climate solutions and are making life more difficult for some of the poorest people on earth. They’re pretty much in the Oxford English Dictionary under counterproductive.

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