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Feeding our cars with corn will cost us 19 years of increased greenhouse emission

To take the step, or leap, perhaps, from using conventional fossil fuels for our vehicles to instead run them on biofuels, such as corn-based bioethanol, we need to face a reality with more impact from greenhouse emissions, for an average time period globally of 19 years. Then it only gets better, according to Pieter Elshout, PhD at Radboud University.

Finding alternative fuels is only one of all the intriguing challenges we’re facing today, all for the benefits of a planetary environment that have been beaten up in equally many ways by – ourselves. Cleaning up our mess shouldn’t be rocket science, but unfortunately we are too clever for our own, and the planet’s, good many times. The results have caused numerous new efforts in the scientist world to see the light of the day, such as attempting to find enough produce to harvest to feed the need for us to drive cars, trucks, motorbikes and boats.

While calculating, among other things, how much land and crops we need to use for biofuels, Elshout and his colleagues at RU have been able to see clearly that using natural areas for growing biofuel crops will have a negative impact on the levels of greenhouse emissions, and the effects vary depending on where in the world the crops are grown. The quickest return occurs around the mediterreanean latitudes, with a slower growth in the tropical belt and also the closer we get to colder areas of the globe.

Elshout explains the complexity range of their predictions: “In developing this model, our calculations of the durations of payback times took account of the entire production chain for fossil fuels and biofuels with the accompanying greenhouse emissions.”

The environmental scientists have included biofuels based on corn, wheat, sugar canes, soybeans and rapeseed in their studies, and while the 19 years is an average number for the entire planet, it may take as long as 500 years or more to reach a level of decreasing greenhouse emissions in countries like Norway, Scotland or in the outer parts of Alaska. On the other hand, it will only take a handful of years to recover the emission levels in numerous other regions.

It’s also an act of balance to choose between farms that use more greenhouse emitting methods to grow their crops (intensive farming), compared to greener alternatives where the farmers go about with methods that give lower yields, but cost less emissions (extensive farming), although the conclusion is that the location of the crops outweighs both the type of crops grown, as well as the type of crop management.

Image: Garry Knight