Living on a Land-Constrained Planet: The Imperative of Moving Beyond High-Carbon Bioenergy

The moment has passed for assuming that bioenergy is an option for supporting climate stability.

California is at a crossroads when it comes to making decisions about the future of policy and mechanisms that have been developed in the pursuit of decarbonization. As the California Air Resources Board endeavors to amend the Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), one of the most important yet lesser-understood climate programs in the state, many civil society and community-based organizations are raising alarms about the risks and dangers embedded in the increasingly aggressive pivot to promote bioenergy options like liquid biofuels.

aerial view of a flat field with several rectangular plots planted with various green biofuel crops

A bioenergy research plot at Michigan State University’s W. K. Kellogg Biological Station. Photo courtesy of Kurt Stepnitz, Michigan State University Office of Biobased Technologies.

Sufficient evidence has accrued to conclude that the moment has passed for assuming that bioenergy is inherently an option for supporting climate stability. The opposite is true. Though there do exist some industrial efficiencies, processing technologies and feedstock streams that offer bioenergy products that might have a climate ‘benefit’, the scale of these options is extremely limited. Bioenergy must be scrutinized with skepticism, as much bioenergy does not support climate stability and actually presents severe threats to food security, forest protection, public health, air quality, ecosystem protection, and social justice.

Unfortunately, the Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) is in many instances inaccurately categorizing high carbon bioenergy as low carbon, due largely to embedded archaic assumptions, flawed carbon accounting, out of date climate science, and a failure to adequately assess impacts on public health, biodiversity, water resources and ecological integrity from both the production of feedstocks and the refining processes necessary for these energy products.

Some of the most common forms of bioenergy incentivized by the LCFS are not only associated with significant increases in food prices, but also with deforestation, industrial pollution, pesticide and herbicide poisoning, degraded water resources, biodiversity loss and increased overall greenhouse gas emissions. These trends are at risk of continuing unabated due to well-intentioned but poorly conceived clean energy targets, public subsidies, and markets-based mechanisms.

Because of the public relations spin, economic opportunism and political convenience of replacing the production and distribution infrastructure of petroleum-based liquid fuels with bioenergy options, there is a tendency to overlook the growing evidence of the impacts of high carbon biofuel products and continue to treat them as sources of renewable energy. A course correction is needed. Pivoting strongly to convert emissions intensive petroleum infrastructure to function as emissions intensive bioenergy infrastructure, as we see happening in the refinery corridor of the North San Francisco Bay Area, will prove to be a climate dead end.

Related Reading
Biofuel Made from Algae Isn’t the Holy Grail We Expected

New research using real-world data casts doubt on the energy efficiency of diesel alternatives that come from phytoplankton.

California Refinery’s Switch to Biofuels Not as Green As it Sounds

Processing liquid fuels from commodities based on a monoculture agriculture model that is devastating the world's last intact forests requires close review.

Some Biofuels Are As Dirty As Tar Sands Oil, Shows Leaked EU Data

The Difficult Task of Distinguishing Good and Bad Biofuels Remains Essential

The US Biofuel Mandate Helps Farmers, but Harms the Environment

Making biofuels amplifies land-use change, increases CO2 emissions, and adds to the adverse effects of industrial agriculture.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Donate
Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

The Latest

Young Alaskans Sue State Over Fossil Fuel Project

Plaintiffs claim $38.7bn gas export project, which would triple state’s greenhouse gas emissions, infringes constitutional rights.

Dharna Noor The Guardian

Elevating Edible Insects and Protecting a Valued African Caterpillar

Food entrepreneurs seek to grow the market for southern Africa's mopane worms while promoting sustainable harvesting.

John Gaisford

Whale Snot, Delivered by Drone

Researchers are using aerial vehicles to study infectious disease in Arctic cetaceans.

Brynn Pedrick

Birding in Gaza

Celebrating links across species amid a nightmare of war.

Rebecca Gordon

Nepal’s Embattled ‘Mad Honey’ Bee

In the Himalayas, development, climate change, and the global market for an intoxicating honey are pushing one bee species to the brink.

Manish Koirala

In Coastal British Columbia,
the Haida Get Their Land Back

By affirming Indigenous land ownership, British Columbia and the Haida Nation are signaling a new era for Indigenous relations.

Serena Renner