It sounds counterintuitive, but burning oil and planting forests to compensate is more environmentally friendly than burning biofuel. So say scientists who have calculated the difference in net emissions between using land to produce biofuel and the alternative: fuelling cars with gasoline and replanting forests on the land instead.
They recommend governments steer away from biofuel and focus on reforestation and maximising the efficiency of fossil fuels instead.
The reason is that producing biofuel is not a "green process". It requires tractors and fertilisers and land, all of which means burning fossil fuels to make "green" fuel.
The ultimate irony would be chopping down forest land to plant biofuel crops. Consider the following:
The researchers also compared how much carbon would be stored by replanting forests with how much is saved by burning biofuel grown on the land instead of gasoline.
They found that reforestation would sequester between two and nine times as much carbon over 30 years than would be saved by burning biofuels instead of gasoline (see bar chart, right). "You get far more carbon sequestered by planting forests than you avoid emissions by producing biofuels on the same land," says Righelato.
He and Spracklen conclude that if the point of biofuels policies is to limit global warming, "policy makers may be better advised in the short term to focus on increasing the efficiency of fossil fuel use, to conserve existing forests and savannahs, and to restore natural forest and grassland habitats on cropland that is not needed for food."
They do admit, however, that biofuels made from woody materials such as prairie grasses may have an advantage over reforestation – although it is difficult to say for now as such fuels are still in development.
Putting energy reform in the hands of domestic agricultural producers seems like no better an idea than putting it in the hands of domestic petroleum producers.