AMS Seminar: Biofuels, Land Conversion and Climate Change

Friday, April 25, 2008 - 5:00am - 6:30am

FRIDAY, April 25th 12pm
Rayburn House Office Building Room 2325

Are all biofuels equal in terms of their capacity to reduce greenhouse
gas emissions relative to the use of gasoline? If not, what factors
determine which biofuels have greater capacity to reduce greenhouse gas
emissions? What is the most reliable method of measuring a biofuel’s
effectiveness for reducing greenhouse gas emissions? What role does land
conversion make in determining the effectiveness of biofuels in reducing
greenhouse gas emissions? Which biofuels of the future are likely to
result in maximal reductions in greenhouse gas emissions? How close are
we to that future?

Public Invited*


Dr. Anthony Socci, Senior Science Fellow, American Meteorological Society


Dr. Joseph E. Fargione, Regional Science Director, The Nature
Conservancy, Central US Region, Minneapolis, MN

Timothy Searchinger, Visiting Scholar and Lecturer in Public and
International Affairs, Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson School,
Princeton, NJ

Dr. Daniel M. Kammen, Class of 1935 Distinguished Professor of Energy,
Professor in the Energy and Resources Group Energy and Resources Group
(ERG) , Professor of Public Policy in the Goldman School of Public
Policy, Professor of Nuclear Engineering in the Department of Nuclear
Engineering, and Co-Director, Berkeley Institute of the Environment, and
Founding Director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory
(RAEL), University of California, Berkeley, CA

Dr. G. David Tilman, Regents' Professor and McKnight Presidential Chair
in Ecology, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN

Program Summary

Biofuels: Threats and Opportunities

It is possible to make biofuels that reduce carbon emissions, but only
if we ensure that they do not lead to additional land clearing.

When land is cleared for agriculture, carbon that is locked up in the
plants and soil is released through burning and decomposition. The
carbon is released as carbon dioxide, which is an important greenhouse
gas, and causes further global warming.

Converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands to produce
food crop–based biofuels in Brazil, Southeast Asia, and the United
States creates a “biofuel carbon debt” by releasing 17 to 420 times more
carbon dioxide than the annual greenhouse gas reductions that these
biofuels would provide by displacing fossil fuels.

Depending on future biofuel production, the effects of this clearing
could be significant for climate change: globally, there is almost three
times as much carbon locked up in the plants and soils of the Earth as
there is in the air and 20% of global carbon dioxide emissions come from
land use change.

Global demand for food is expected to double in the next 50 years and is
unlikely to be met entirely from yield increases, thus requiring
significant land clearing. If existing cropland is insufficient to meet
imminent food demands, then any dedicated biofuel crop production will
necessarily create demand for additional cropland to be cleared.

Several forms of biofuels do not cause land clearing, including biofuels
made from algae, from waste biomass, or from biomass grown on degraded
and abandoned agricultural lands planted with perennials.

Present Generation of Biofuels: Reducing or Enhancing Greenhouse Gas

Previous studies have found that substituting biofuels for gasoline will
reduce greenhouse gasses because growing the crops for biofuels
sequesters takes carbon out of the air that burning only puts back,
while gasoline takes carbon out of the ground and puts it into the air.
These analyses have typically not taken into consideration carbon
emissions that result from farmers worldwide converting forest or
grassland to produce biofuels, or that result from farmers worldwide
responding to higher prices and converting forest and grassland into new
cropland to replace the grain (or cropland) diverted to biofuels. Our
revised analysis suggests that greenhouse gas emissions from the land
use changes described above, for most biofuels that use productive land,
are likely to substantially increase over the next 30 years. Even
advanced biofuels from biomass, if produced on good cropland, could have
adverse greenhouse gas effects. At the same time, diverting productive
land raises crop prices and reduces consumption among the 2.8 billion
people who live on less than $2 per day.

Simply avoiding biofuels produced from new land conversion – as proposed
by a draft European Union law -- does not avoid these global warming
emissions because the world’s farmers will replace existing crops or
cropland used for biofuels by expanding into other lands. The key to
avoiding greenhouse gas emissions and hunger from land use change is to
use feedstocks that do not divert the existing productive capacity of
land – whether that production stores carbon (as in forest and
grassland) or generates food or wood products. Waste products, including
municipal and slash forest waste from private lands, agricultural
residues and cover crops provide promising opportunities. There may also
be opportunities to use highly unproductive grasslands where biomass
crops can be grown productively, but those opportunities must be
explored carefully.

Biofuels and a Low-Carbon Economy

The low-carbon fuel standard is a concept and legal requirement in
California and an expanding number of states that targets the amount of
greenhouse gases produced per unit of energy delivered to the vehicle,
or carbon intensity. In January 2007, California Gov. Arnold
Schwarzenegger signed Executive Order S-1-07
(, which called for a 10-percent
reduction in the carbon intensity of his state’s transportation fuels by
2020. A research team in which Dr. Kammen participated developed a
technical analysis
of low-carbon fuels that could be used to meet that mandate. That
analysis employs a life-cycle, ‘cradle to grave’ analysis of different
fuel types, taking into consideration the ecological footprint of all
activities included in the production, transport, storage, and use of
the fuel.

Under a low-carbon fuel standard, fuel providers would track the “global
warming intensity” (GWI) of their products and express it as a
standardized unit of measure--the amount of carbon dioxide equivalent
per amount of fuel delivered to the vehicle (gCO2e/MJ). This value
measures vehicle emissions as well as other trade-offs, such as land-use
changes that may result from biofuel production. For example, an
analysis of ethanol shows that not all biofuels are created equal. While
ethanol derived from corn but distilled in a coal-powered refinery is in
fact worse on average than gasoline, some cellulosic-based biofuels --
largely those with little or no impact on agricultural or pristine lands
have the potential for a dramatically lower GWI.

Equipped with detailed measurements that relate directly to the
objectives of a low-carbon fuel standard, policy makers are in a
position to set standards for a state or nation, and then regulate the
value down over time. The standard applies to the mix of fuels sold in a
region, so aggressively pursuing cleaner fuels permits some percentage
of more traditional, dirtier fuels to remain, a flexibility that can
enhance the ability to introduce and enforce a new standard.

The most important conclusions from this analysis are that biofuels can
play a role in sustainable energy future, but the opportunities for
truly low-carbon biofuels may be far more limited than initially
thought. Second, a low-carbon economy requires a holistic approach to
energy sources – both clean supply options and demand management – where
consistent metrics for actual carbon emissions and impacts are utilized
to evaluate options. Third, land-use impacts of biofuel choices have
global, not just local, impact, and a wider range of options, including,
plug-in hybrid vehicles, dramatically improved land-use practices
including sprawl management and curtailment, and greatly increased and
improved public transport all have major roles to play.

Biofuels and Greenhouse Gas Emissions: A Better Path Forward

The recent controversy over biofuels notwithstanding, the US has the
potential to meet the legislated 21 billion gallon biofuel goal with
biofuels that, on average, exceed the targeted reduction in greenhouse
gas release, but only if feedstocks are produced properly and biofuel
facilities meet their energy demands with biomass.

A diversity of alternative feedstocks can offer great GHG benefits. The
largest GHG benefits will come from dedicated perennial crops grown with
low inputs of fertilizer on degraded lands, and especially from those
crops that increase carbon storage in soil (e.g., switchgrass, mixed
species prairie, and Miscanthus). These may offer 100% or perhaps
greater reductions in GHG relative to gasoline. Agricultural and
forestry residues, and dedicated woody crops, including hybrid poplar
and traditional pulp-like operations, should achieve 50% GHG reductions.

In contrast, if biofuel production leads to direct or indirect land
clearing, the resultant carbon debt can negate for decades or longer any
greenhouse gas benefits a biofuel could otherwise provide. Current
legislation, which is outcome based, has anticipated this problem by
mandating GHG standards for current and next generation biofuels.

Dr. Joseph E. Fargione is the Regional Science Director for The Nature
Conservancy’s Central US Region. He received his doctorate in Ecology
from the University of Minnesota in 2004. Prior to the joining The
Nature Conservancy, he held positions as Assistant Research Faculty at
the University of New Mexico (Biology Department), Assistant Professor
at Purdue University (Departments of Biology and Forestry and Natural
Resources), and Research Associate at the University of Minnesota
(Departments of Applied Economics and Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior).

His work has focused on the benefits of biodiversity and the causes and
consequences of its loss. Most recently, he has studied the effect of
increasing demand for biofuels on land use, wildlife, and carbon
emissions. He has authored 18 papers published in leading scientific
journals, including Science, Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences, Proceedings of the Royal Society, Ecology, and Ecology
Letters, and he was a coordinating lead author for the Millennium
Ecosystem Assessment chapter titled “Biodiversity and the regulation of
ecosystem services”. His recent paper in Science, “Land clearing and the
biofuel carbon debt” was covered in many national media outlets,
including the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal,
National Public Radio, NBC Nightly News, and Time Magazine.

Timothy Searchinger is a Visiting Scholar and Lecturer in Public and
International Affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School.
He is also a Transatlantic Fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the
United States, and a Senior Fellow at the Georgetown Environmental Law
and Policy Institute. Trained as a lawyer, Dr. Searchinger now works
primarily on interdisciplinary environmental issues related to agriculture.

Timothy Searchinger previously worked at the Environmental Defense Fund,
where he co-founded the Center for Conservation Incentives, and
supervised work on agricultural incentive and wetland protection
programs. He was also a deputy General Counsel to Governor Robert P.
Casey of Pennsylvania and a law clerk to Judge Edward R. Becker of the
United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. He is a graduate,
summa cum laude, of Amherst College and holds a J.D. from Yale Law
School where he was Senior Editor of the Yale Law Journal.

Timothy Searchinger first proposed the Conservation Reserve Enhancement
Program to USDA and worked closely with state officials to develop
programs that have now restored one million acres of riparian buffers
and wetlands to protect important rivers and bays. Searchinger received
a National Wetlands Protection Award from the Environmental Protection
Agency in 1992 for a book about the functions of seasonal wetlands of
which he was principal author. His most recent writings focus on the
greenhouse gas emissions from biofuels, and agricultural conservation
strategies to clean-up nutrient runoff. He is also presently writing a
book on the effects of agriculture on the environment and ways to reduce

Dr. Daniel M. Kammen, Class of 1935 Distinguished Professor in the
Energy and Resources Group (ERG), in the Goldman School of Public Policy
and in the Department of Nuclear Engineering at the University of
California, Berkeley. He is also the founding Director of the Renewable
and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) and Co-Director of the Berkeley
Institute of the Environment.

Previously in his career, Dr. Kammen was an Assistant Professor of
Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, and also
played a key role in developing the interdisciplinary Science,
Technology, and Environmental Policy (STEP) Program at Princeton as STEP
Chair from 1997 - 1999. In July of 1998 Kammen joined ERG as an
Associate Professor of Energy and Society.

Dr. Kammen received his undergraduate degree in physics from Cornell
University (1984), and his masters and doctorate in physics from Harvard
University (1986 & 1988) for work on theoretical solid state physics and
computational biophysics. First at Caltech and then as a Lecturer in
Physics and in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, Dr. Kammen
developed a number of projects focused on renewable energy technologies
and environmental resource management.

Dr. Kammen's research interests include: the science, engineering, and
policy of renewable energy systems; health and environmental impacts of
energy generation and use; rural resource management, including issues
of gender and ethnicity; international R&D policy, climate change; and
energy forecasting and risk analysis. He is the author of over 200
peer-reviewed journal publications, a book on environmental,
technological, and health risks, and numerous reports on renewable
energy and development. He has also been a lead author for the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that shared the 2007 Nobel
Peace Prize.

Dr. G. David Tilman is Regents' Professor and McKnight Presidential
Chair in Ecology at the University of Minnesota. He is an elected member
of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of
Sciences, and has served on editorial boards of nine scholarly journals,
including Science. He serves on the Advisory Board for the Max Plank
Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena, Germany. He has received the
Ecological Society of America’s Cooper Award and its MacArthur Award,
the Botanical Society of America’s Centennial Award, the Princeton
Environmental Prize and was named a J. S. Guggenheim Fellow. He has
written two books, edited three books, and published more than 200
papers in the peer-reviewed literature, including more than 30 papers in
Science, Nature and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
USA. The Institute for Scientific Information recently designated him as
the world’s most highly cited environmental scientist of the decade.

Dr. Tilman’s recent research explores how managed and natural ecosystems
can sustainably meet human needs for food, energy and ecosystem
services. A long-term focus of his research is on the causes,
consequence and conservation of biological diversity, including using
biodiversity as a tool for biofuel production and climate stabilization
through carbon sequestration. His work on renewable energy examines the
full environmental, energetic and economic costs and benefits of
alternative biofuels and modes of their production. *Please provide us
with a business card if you would like to be on our mailing list. This
seminar series is open to the public and does not require a reservation.
To bypass the registration table on the day of the seminar, please use
this NEW online form. This ensures you will receive future email
notifications for our seminars.

This seminar series is open to the public and does not require a

The Next Seminar is tentatively scheduled for Friday, May 16, 2008.
Topic: Climate and Health Effects of Carbon Dioxide, Black Carbon and
Other Air-Borne Particles

Please see our web site for seminar summaries, presentations and future

*Please provide us with a business card if you would like to be on our
mailing list. This seminar series is open to the public and does not
require a reservation. To bypass the registration table on the day of
the seminar, please use the online form. This ensures you will receive
future email notifications for our seminars.

For more information please contact:

Anthony D. Socci, Ph.D. Tel. (202) 737-9006, ext. 412


Jan Wilkerson Tel. (202) 737-9006, ext. 436