Canada, the United States and the European Union have increasingly placed biofuel at the centre of their green strategies in the past decade.
Initial studies highlighted the potential for large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
Rural leaders support potential job creation by developing ethanol and biodiesel industrial plants, and farmers hope biofuel can act as a permanent floor for agricultural prices. Canadian governments have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on subsidies.
In addition, with the mixture mandates, which require a minimum percentage of renewable fuel in gas at the pump, biofuel has a guaranteed market share regardless of production costs.
The cost of biofuel production is substantial, so it is important to explore fully whether there truly are environmental benefits to its production and the eventual replacement of fossil fuels.
Studies published in 2008 challenged the widely held notion that biofuel production was beneficial to the environment.
In Science magazine, studies by Timothy Searchinger and Joseph Fargione contend that while biofuel production may reduce greenhouse gas emissions over its life cycle compared to fossil fuels, past studies ignored the impact of direct and indirect land use change.
Remedying this omission is critical to determining whether biofuel is truly beneficial for the environment.
Land use change occurs when land designated for other purposes is used to grow feedstock for biofuel production. This process can have a significantly adverse impact on the environment.
The burning of trees, grass or other crops to clear the land for feedstock and the microbial decomposition of organic carbon stored in plants and soils release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Even after the land is cleared, there is a prolonged period of greenhouse gas release in which coarse roots and branches decay.
The release of this carbon dioxide over a 50 year span is the carbon debt of land use change. It is paid back over time because the life cycle emissions of biofuel are less than those of fossil fuel. Biofuel will have a limited, if not negative, impact on efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions if the carbon debt takes a substantial amount of time to repay.
As well, switching crops causes indirect land use change. An acre of cropland for food that is converted into feedstock will need to be replaced somewhere else in the world on marginal land with weaker yields to avoid taking food out of the food supply. Marginal land will be used because of the lack of available prime cropland.
According to the Fargione study, even converting fallow land will result in greenhouse gas emissions.
For example, U.S. Conservation Reserve Program land that was fallow for 15 years gradually recovered its carbon stores over time. Converting reserve land into feedstock results in a carbon debt of 48 years.
Policy makers must be conscious of the fact that all land traps carbon dioxide over time, so converting even the barest of landscapes for feedstock will lead to greenhouse gas emissions beyond the savings made through the biofuel life cycle.
This problem will emerge in Canada. As of 2008, Canada was a net importer of corn, with most imports coming from the U.S. Canada will have to import more corn from the U.S. and potentially convert its grassland for feedstock to increase biofuel production.
Biofuel production presents the same challenges in Canada as it does in the U.S. With limited cropland, land use change for biofuel production will affect our greenhouse gas emissions.
Eric Merkley is an intern with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. This op ed has been excerpted from a longer work entitled The Green Plague: How biofuels are damaging the environment, which can be found on the Frontier website at www.fcpp.org/publication.php/4191.