April 17, 2009

New Report Challenges Searchinger ILUC Study

Coinciding with the National 25x'25 Summit earlier this month the alliance has just inaugurated their own blog full of news, reports, and commentary relevant to the mission of the organization - to get 25 percent of our energy from renewable resources like wind, solar, and biofuels by the year 2025.

A blog article published yesterday titled "New Report Challenges Searchinger ILUC Study" provides information about the work of two Australian researchers which criticizes the methods and assumptions employed by Tim Searchinger and others in the controversial study titled "Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases through Emissions from Land Use Change", which was published in February, 2008.

Below are my comments to the article.

There are two paradigm shifts at play here.

The obvious one is the international effort to shift the production of liquid fuels from fossil, carbon positive, feedstock to renewable, carbon neutral or negative feedstock. The Catch-22 for renewables is its current unavoidable reliance on its predecessor for energy, transport, and fertilizers. Consequently, many of the factors that impact the carbon footprint of cultivated feedstocks like corn are a result of the very lack of alternatives that renewables are designed to provide. The corn ethanol industry in particular is already at work replacing every carbon input imaginable to improve its balance sheet but it will take time.

The second paradigm shift is the unprecedented global definition of acceptable technologies and markets before they have had a chance to incubate regionally. What innovations would we have sacrificed had we pre-regulated to this extent in the past? Nuclear bombs - which saved millions of lives by changing hot world wars into cold ones? Personal computers and the internet - which democratized worldwide communication and learning to an unparalleled extent?

Anticipating ill effects before feedstocks and products are developed is a risky business that threatens to kill research, development, and deployment - and rapidly shrinking investment. Are we to cede all future RD&D to deep pocketed corporations who have a vested interest in controlling threats to their markets? Can politically motivated legislators objectively thread the delicate needle of market definition and regulation?

The indirect land use conclusions arrived at in Searchinger’s paper are highly speculative and are better at looking backward than forward while new technologies and feedstocks alternatives are being developed. The prominence that such one-side speculation has been given in the public media is troubling.

The idea that low carbon fuel standards include factors based on speculation is prone to gross misuse and manipulation. By hamstringing technology and market development with such standards we virtually insure unfair perpetuation of the status quo - an industry that clearly would not have passed such scrutiny had similar lifecycle analysis models been applied one hundred years ago.

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