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Dirty biofuels

Science | Environmentalists take action against alternative fuels that were supposed to be green

Issue: "2010 Books Issue," July 3, 2010

Biofuels in Europe now have more hoops to splash through if they want a tax break. In June the European Union's energy chief introduced a certification system that requires subsidized biofuels to reduce carbon emissions by at least 35 percent (compared to gas and diesel) after production and transportation emissions are factored in. The source crop-corn, soybeans, or sugarcane, for instance-must be grown on land that was already used for farming in 2008. The rules, which take effect in December, aim to quell fears of land exploitation while working toward the EU's target of replacing 10 percent of its transportation fuels with "renewables" by 2020, part of a larger carbon-reduction plan for the union.

But while bureaucrats try to fill quotas, some environmentalists are challenging the assumption that biofuels are environmentally friendly in the first place. Friends of the Earth Europe called the new EU policy "folly," and Greenpeace criticized it for not preventing "indirect land use change," where farmers rotate existing crops onto new land in order to make way for lucrative biofuel production. The result of this in foreign nations is often deforestation, and subsequently, an increase in carbon emissions. When land conversion is factored in, some biofuels may ultimately increase emissions, not reduce them.

Scientists have revealed other problems with the "green" fuel: One study calculated that ethanol manufactured from irrigated crops in the United States may consume 100 times as much water as gasoline per mile driven. Another demonstrated that biodiesel is much more prone to degrade from anaerobic bacteria than traditional diesel. Environmental groups point out that biofuel crop fertilizers release nitrous oxides into the atmosphere, said to be 300 times more powerful than CO2 as greenhouse gases.

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Although estimates vary wildly, biofuels also likely bear some percentage of blame for global food price increases. According to the United Nations, average prices have fallen from their 2008 peak but remain around 70 percent higher than in 2002, threatening families in poorer nations.

In the United States, scientists accused the EPA of inflating the emissions-reducing potential of corn ethanol on paper in order to categorize it as a "renewable" energy source. In response to biofuel industry lobbyists, the EPA this summer may raise the maximum amount of ethanol allowed in standard gasoline from 10 percent to 12 or 15 percent.

Pricing out a baby

By Daniel James Devine

The fruit of the womb is a reward, wrote King Solomon in Psalm 127, but he probably had more than tax revenues in mind. Yet that's all the motivation needed for governments to cover the cost of fertility treatment for infertile couples, according to the nonprofit European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology. While advocating the subsidies, the organization estimated the typical lifetime tax revenues from a European child born in 2005, subtracted government expenses, and came up with a net revenue of about $153,000. That's an eight-fold return on an average fertility treatment cost of $18,000.

In the European Union, where the fertility rate of 1.5 children per woman is well below replacement level, many nations pay for a limited number of treatment cycles. The subsidies are rare in the United States, though New York covers treatment for certain couples.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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