Jerry Melillo ’65, a senior scientist at the U.S. Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., says in a study published in Science that the new generation of biofuels will actually emit more carbon dioxide, averaged over the first three decades of this century, than gasoline—although the fuels were meant to be a low-carbon alternative.
A Reuters report on the study noted that governments and private industry are spending billions of dollars on research into making fuels from wood and grass in the hopes of cutting carbon emissions while not competing with food, as corn-based biofuels do.
Melillo and his team found, however, that these advanced “cellulosic” biofuels will actually lead to higher carbon emissions. They contend that the land required to plant poplar trees and tropical grasses would displace farmland and therefore lead to more deforestation to create new crop farmland. Deforestation is a significant source of carbon emissions. Additionally, these biofuel crops require nitrogen fertilizer, which itself produces two greenhouse gasses.
Melillo notes that the paper is not meant to negate the place for cellulosic biofuels.
“It is not an obvious and easy win without thinking very carefully about the problem,” Melillo told Reuters. “We have to think very carefully about both short and long-term consequences.”