Biofuels and global warming

Global warming can only be arrested by putting less…a lot less…so called “greenhouse gases” (mostly CO2 from burning fossil fuels) into the air, taking CO2 already released out, or – a longshot and controversial approach – making the planet more reflective. (This post is one in an ongoing series you can review in the Energy and Environment thread.) Among the current favorite ways to do the first is to substitute biofuels for fossil fuels, especially in cars and trucks, an approach that mostly (now) means making more ethanol, in turn mostly (now) from corn.

Unfortunately, “ethanol” denotes a specific chemical whose manufacture can produce a wide range of environmental benefits, all the way from “no better than gasoline” to “pretty darn good”. It depends on what crop you start with, how you grew the crop (tillage, fertilization, etc.), how far you had to haul it, what you distilled the fermented mash with (coal? not green! sugar cane stalks (bagasse)? verdissimo!), and so on. Unless ethanol can be distinguished at the point of wholesale or retail purchase and ‘graded’ on this dimension of environmental merit, however defined, it will be impossible to make important greenhouse gas gains with biofuels, whether we wield the tools of regulation, public education, or taxes and subsidies.

My colleagues and I have studied this issue at some length for the Natural Resources Defense Council, finding that an environmental index for biofuels is a practical policy goal and that it can be implemented in several different ways. The paper is here.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

One thought on “Biofuels and global warming”

  1. Is Ethanol Green?

    IS ETHANOL GREEN?….There are probably some of you out there who believe that not everything in the world can be put into chart form. On Thursday, for example, I wrote that "corn ethanol is a boondoggle," and that probably seems…

Comments are closed.