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Research shows converting land for biofuel crops increases carbon debt

Converting grasslands to soybean and corn crops to create biofuels would release a significant amount of carbon into the atmosphere, limiting the positive environmental impact of the cleaner energy source, according to research conducted by Dr. Jiquan Chen, UT professor of environmental sciences.

Chen and Dr. Terenzio Zenone, UT postdoctoral research associate, investigated the conversion of grasslands in the Conservation Reserve Program into farmland used to produce bioenergy crops and discovered the carbon debt increase in doing so would be too high.

Carbon debt is the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere during the process of converting the land for agriculture use. According to Chen, the carbon released in the process would take decades to pay back with the biofuels that would be created from the crops.

“There is a long list of challenges associated with bioenergy: how and where to convert biomass into ethanol, how and where to produce the biomass. From this question comes our topic of research,” Chen said. “This paper specifically addresses the issue of converting conservation land, which is mostly prairie land similar to native grasslands, which provide good habitats for plants and animals.”

The research, “Carbon Debt of Conservation Reserve Program Grasslands Converted to Bioenergy Production,” was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, one of the most widely read and cited scientific publications in the world.

There are more than 30 million acres of land in the country that are part of the Conservation Reserve Program, which encourages farmers to grow natural vegetation rather than crops.

“This research is important because this paper, along with others published in different scientific journals, focuses on the ethics of land-use change on carbon balance, which is a main environmental issue right now,” Zenone said. “This is the first case where ethics of land-use change have been measured in this way. No other paper does this.”

“The landscape in northwest Ohio is dominated by privately owned farmland, primarily managed corn or corn and soybean systems,” Chen said. “Our research will have a direct impact on farmers to decide whether they want to make these changes, because the carbon debt could take more than 120 years to balance out.”

The research was conducted in partnership between UT and Michigan State University. Both are participating in the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center’s research consortium sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.

One Response to “Research shows converting land for biofuel crops increases carbon debt”

  1. Josh Martin Says:

    It’s wonderful to see this long-view treatment of corn crops as biofuels (pleasantly and ironically enough from a Midwestern university) gain increased traction in the scientific community as well as increased exposure to the public.

    If I may wonder aloud, though, it isn’t clear to me that framing this specific point primarily or exclusively in terms of ethics is all that helpful. I imagine that Dr. Zenone and his colleagues who do likewise are wisely recognizing the advantage of ethical rhetoric – that it is essentially prescriptive and has a shot at actually prompting a change in the public’s consumpion habits, how government officials fund alternative fuel research, what technologies the energy industry chooses to develop, et cetera. BUT, we must not lose sight of the way in which we can simply frame this point pragmatically. The whole point of biofuels (or at least the primary impetus, I imagine) – one that I hope the public largely agrees with – is to lessen dramatically our carbon footprint (setting aside questions about whether or not changes alone to the way we use energy can achieve this). The conclusion that using crops including corn as biofuels not only fails to reduce our carbon footprint but actually stands capable of significantly adding to the problem is a conveniently demonstrable empirical claim that totally avoids the classic problems of ethics (e.g., the queerness of moral properties, the question of what type of normative ethical system we endorse, et cetera).

    We of course might need to turn to ethical considerations, though problematic as they sometimes are, IF the pragmatic value of biofuel use clashes with and is overriden by the moral values of a clean environment, for example. BUT, in this case, there is no value clash between any pragmatic good and ethical norms, as there is no pragmatic value in the exploitation of crops as biofuels to begin with! So let’s just stick with the comparatively easier “road to hoe” with the pragmatic approach here.

    Now, this certainly isn’t to suggest that ethicists have nothing to say on this or other environmental issues. There is a LOT to say in this vein. I’m just suggesting that we shouldn’t lose sight of either the pragmatic OR ethical dimensions of these types of problems – the extent to which the correctness of the best course of action in some cases (as in this one) is over-determined.