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Global warming reports: poor prospects for corn ethanol

April 9, 2009 |  6:36 pm

Global warming could scorch the corn economy to the tune of about $1.4 billion a year, according to a report that compiles data from academia and government. The damage would come in the expected places: the Midwest and South, according to the Environment America study released Thursday.

The report contradicts assurances from climate-change skeptics that warming would have a net benefit on agriculture by increasing growing seasons and crop yields.

“Not all the effects of global warming will be bad for agriculture; growing seasons will be longer, and increased carbon dioxide levels encourage plant growth,” the report states. “But global warming will make some of the

Corn

 challenges that agriculture faces significantly worse, including increasing temperatures, more damaging storms, ozone pollution, and spreading pests, weeds and diseases.”

That's more bad news for advocates of corn ethanol as an alternative to fossil fuels. And it comes on top of a Congressional Budget Office study that blames corn-based ethanol for about 10% to 15% of the recent rise in food prices, by increasing demand for the crop and the land on which it's grown.

"CBO estimates that from April 2007 to April 2008, the rise in the price of corn resulting from expanded production of ethanol contributed between 0.5 and 0.8 percentage points of the 5.1 percent increase in food prices measured by the consumer price index (CPI). Over the same period, certain other factors — for example, higher energy costs — had a greater effect on food prices than did the use of ethanol as a motor fuel."

Corn ethanol use has been helping trim greenhouse gases, according to Argonne National Laboratory, which has calculated the well-to-wheels impact of transportation fuels. But the report notes that those calculations show the savings wane as more land gets cleared to grow corn, eliminating important carbon "sinks" that absorb carbon dioxide:

"If increases in the production of ethanol led to a large amount of forests or grasslands being converted into new cropland, those changes in land use could more than offset any reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions — because forests and grasslands naturally absorb more carbon from the atmosphere than cropland absorbs. In the future, the use of cellulosic ethanol, which is made from wood, grasses and agricultural plant wastes rather than corn, might reduce greenhouse-gas emissions more substantially, but current technologies for producing cellulosic ethanol are not commercially viable."

California is about to set a standard for such fuels, and that is likely to sharpen the debate on a national level. A spokesman for Pacific Ethanol already has called the Air Resources Board's blueprint "a perversion of science and a prescription for disaster."

Why such fighting words over a move away from fossil fuels? California, unlike the federal government thus far, would not require a specific amount of biofuels to be sold, which gave a big boost to distillers of corn already in the market. California's rule requires refiners to reduce the carbon intensity of their fuels by certain percentages. And California officials promise to factor in the carbon downside of corn -- fertilizer, land-use effects and more. 

-- Geoff Mohan

Photo: Corn in a field near Seneca, Ill. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

 

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