Wise men saying smart things about biofuels and land use in <i>Science</i>

In today's Science, David Tilman, Robert Socolow, Jonathan A. Foley, Jason Hill, Eric Larson, Lee Lynd, Stephen Pacala, John Reilly, Tim Searchinger, Chris Somerville, and Robert Williams join up to write a very helpful, clear-headed statement (summary, full version requires subscription) about not only the potential of biofuels, but also the importance of doing the right thing.

It starts with this:

In a world seeking solutions to its energy, environmental, and food challenges, society cannot afford to miss out on the global greenhouse-gas emission reductions and the local environmental and societal benefits when biofuels are done right. However, society also cannot accept the undesirable impacts of biofuels done wrong.

Not surprisingly given Tim Searchinger's involvement, it includes strong statements about the risks of land-use change such as this:

Sometimes, the most profitable way to get land for biofuels is to clear the land of its native ecosystem, be it rainforest, savanna, or grassland. The resulting release of carbon dioxide from burning or decomposing biomass and oxidizing humus can negate any greenhouse-gas benefits of biofuels for decades to centuries ( 16– 20). Decisions regarding land for biofuels can have adverse consequences far beyond the land directly in question. For example, if fertile land now used for food crops (such as corn, soybeans, palm nuts, or rapeseed) is used to produce bioenergy, this could lead, elsewhere in the world, to farmers clearing wild lands to meet displaced demand for crops. In this way, indirect land-use effects of biofuels can lead to extra greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, and higher food prices.

(By the way, Searchinger has a helpful new white paper on why the uncertainty around indirect emissions doesn't justify ignoring them. Among the other smart points it makes is that if, as some argue, biofuels such as corn ethanol won't have any impact on food supplies, then they don't provide any GHG benefits because the carbon that the corn absorbs would have been absorbed anyway, so the corn ethanol isn't causing any new absorption. So you basically have to assume indirect effects if you want to argue that corn ethanol can have any climate benefit. Check it out. It really deserves its own post.)

Similarly, given Lee Lynd's involvement, it's not surprising to find constructive statements such as this:

Three steps should be taken: meaningful science-based environmental safeguards should be adopted, a robust biofuels industry should be enabled, and those who have invested in first-generation biofuels should have a viable path forward.

Even the policy recommendations are right on:

Biofuels should receive policy support as substitutes for fossil energy only when they make a positive impact on four important objectives: energy security, greenhouse-gas emissions, biodiversity, and the sustainability of the food supply. Performance-based policies are needed that provide incentives proportional to the benefits delivered. Legislation that is vague could allow significant portions of the biofuels industry to develop along counterproductive pathways. Complementary policies must directly target related goals, such as land- and water-efficient food production, reduced agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, and the prevention of habitat loss from land-clearing

This is a group of extremely smart people (some of whom I'm honored to count as friends), and their statement is a breath of fresh air after some of the unfortunate stuff coming out of the mouths and pens of some of our elected officials. (Such as this from Sen. Harkin: "We want no indirect land use, things like that in there -- there is no scientific basis for that.") A bit of wisdom is a good way to start the weekend.