Why the Ethanol Debate Isn't Helping Anyone

GreenOrder

Why the Ethanol Debate Isn't Helping Anyone

We’ve entered another ugly battle in the ethanol wars. The EPA released an analysis last month purporting that corn-based ethanol is actually worse for the climate than gasoline on a lifecycle basis, and the California Air Resources Board (CARB) released a ruling that will effectively exclude corn-based ethanol from California’s Renewable Fuels Standard for that reason.

The ethanol industry and its supporters are livid. House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN), a longtime ethanol supporter, threw a fit during a recent hearing and now is threatening to block climate legislation over the new rules. "I don't care,” he exclaimed during a hearing over EPA’s draft rule, “Even if you fix this. I don't trust anybody anymore -- I’ve had it." Ethanol opponents are cheering the agencies' decisions and urging them to look at ethanol under worst-case scenarios.

What is sad about this spat is that while everyone is arguing over whether ethanol is bad, no one is talking about how to make it better. The worst impacts of ethanol occur far from Iowa or Washington in the forests that are burned down to respond to added demand for cropland.

Deforestation results in almost 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, and it will not be solved through tired finger pointing. This problem is hard but solvable if we focus on the systemic drivers of slash-and-burn agriculture.

A quick primer on the latest wrinkle from the EPA and CARB: Both reached damning conclusions about the impact of ethanol based on complex economic modeling, but the basic logic behind their analysis is simple:

• Using farmland for ethanol diverts land from being used for food production, driving up price and demand
• Higher prices and demand encourage farmers in the developing world to plant more crops
• Developing world farmers clear and burn forests so they can plant more crops
• Clearing forest for cropland releases a tremendous amount of greenhouse gas
• Thus, devoting cropland to ethanol production leads to increases in greenhouse gas emissions
The ethanol industry and its supporters don’t dispute this logic, but claim two problems with the agencies’ approach: (1) The science behind this economic modeling is too new and imprecise, and (2) biofuels are being held to a much tougher standard than other climate solutions. Their opponents hold that the science is sound, and that other low-carbon technologies simply don't have these massive "indirect land-use" problems.

Yet this debate is just so much fiddling while Rome (or maybe Indonesia) burns. The crux of the problem is not in how we measure the impact of ethanol, it is that developing world farmers clear and burn forests so they can plant more crops. Ethanol is just one of the pressures that speed the disastrous destruction of these forests. The rest is just an accounting exercise.

Farmers in the developing world burn forests because it is the most economical, and often only, choice they have. They often can’t afford fertilizers, equipment or high-yield seeds. They have limited access to informational tools like education, soil tests and precision agriculture technology that would allow them to produce more crops in the same place. Without these resources, the only choice is to find new land.

Moreover, there is little or no barrier to slash-and-burn agriculture. Logging roads often give farmers access to virgin forests. Not enough forests are protected, and where they are, many governments lack the resources or the will to enforce conservation laws.

The solutions to these problems are not easy, but models exist. Technology transfer and economic development programs can increase crop yields and reduce the real costs of agricultural technology. A global agreement on REDD (reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation) could protect forests and provide payments from a global trust fund as an alternative to chopping trees down.

In order to reduce the lifecycle impact of ethanol, the industry needs to do more than cry foul on these regulations. It needs to be engaged in finding solutions to reduce the pressure to clear land for agriculture. A forward-thinking producer would be lobbying for global forest protection and working with partners in the agricultural industry to support technology transfer to the rural poor.

Meanwhile, ethanol's detractors need to admit that producers can't bear this burden alone, and that failing to compromise with such a politically powerful industry will lead only to delay and more poorly designed policies.

Here's a modest proposal: Congress lets the ethanol industry off the hook for its indirect upstream effects, and the industry agrees that some of its massive subsidies be diverted to programs that protect forests and give farmers options beyond burning them down. Putting more resources toward these programs will not only protect forests from the indirect effects of ethanol, but also the threats of logging, development or other future pressures on agricultural growth.

We will see many more of these fights in the coming years as industries, activists and policymakers argue over who has to bear the burden for indirect, unanticipated environmental and social damages. We need a systemic approach that tackles the problems on the ground, instead of shifting the blame around.

Noam Ross is a senior analyst at GreenOrder, an LRN Company. GreenOrder is a strategy and management consulting firm that has helped leading companies turn sustainability into business value since 2000.


Cornfield - Image by jnk2.