EAST LANSING, Mich. A fixable error in the way carbon is counted in current U.S. climate legislation and in the Kyoto Protocol could undermine efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by using biofuels, says a premier group of national environmental and land use scientists.
"The promise of biofuels made from biomass is huge, from both climate mitigation and economic perspectives," said Phil Robertson, Michigan State University professor of crop and soil sciences and one of the authors of the paper "Fixing a Critical Climate Accounting Error" published in the Oct. 23 issue of the journal Science. "But the promise could come up short if we don't pay attention to the details. One of the most important details is how the benefits of carbon capture are tallied. If we miscalculate the carbon benefits, we may find out later that our policies and practices are counterproductive; that they don't have the positive impact on climate that we want them to have."
Robertson also is a member of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, a partnership between Michigan State and the University of Wisconsin-Madison funded by the U.S. Department of Energy to conduct basic research aimed at solving some of the most complex problems in converting natural materials to energy.
The paper authors point out that the greenhouse gas consequences of bioenergy can vary widely, depending on where the plants used to produce the energy are grown. For example, fast-growing biofuel crops grown on abandoned farmland can capture more carbon than existing plants and so reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is because the biofuel crop absorbs more carbon from the atmosphere than would otherwise be stored. But if existing forests are cut down and replaced with bioenergy crops, the carbon released from the soil and mature trees, plus the loss of future carbon storage, is greater than the carbon captured by the bioenergy crops.
Current carbon accounting meas
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Michigan State University