Campus News

Global climate change expert outlines stark reality of biofuels

An internationally recognized expert told a near-capacity audience on campus that biofuels are the answer to the problems of energy security and global warming.

Jerry Schnoor, an engineering professor at the University of Iowa, visited UGA on Jan. 24. A recognized expert on the causes and implications of global climate change, Schnoor led a discussion outlining the current parameters of the debate with faculty and students. At the close, he left little doubt about what actions will be necessary at the convergence of energy security and climate change issues.

“Biofuels are here to stay,” Schnoor said. “The question we must ask is: How can they be improved?”

While acknowledging the debate on climate change, Schnoor presented evidence that has, by consensus, largely eclipsed that debate. So-called peak oil, or the point in time at which the m­aximum global petroleum ­production rate is reached, the paleo climate record and carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal for energy all highlight our reliance on scarce resources that have exacted a toll on the environment.

Large quantities of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have led to “dangerous interference with the Earth’s climate,” Schnoor said.

Discussions about climate and energy security have resettled around biofuels as a potential solution, though one wrought with pitfalls and in need of fine tuning, according to Schnoor.

The U.S. Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 mandated producing 36 billion gallons of biofuels per year by 2022. Currently the nation supplies 6 billion gallons per year, mostly from corn ethanol production. The rush to ramp up production to meet the new goals has led to a proliferation of new ethanol plants across the Midwest.

But  Schnoor said increased ethanol production has been and will be associated with stress on food markets, biological dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and great impacts on water aquifers, among other problems.

Schnoor referenced deliberations at the recent climate conference in Bali, noting that the most contentious issues surround the divide between developing and developed countries.

“Consensus has arisen that, as developed countries which have enjoyed high standards of living throughout the last century based on our reliance on fossil fuels, it is our responsibility to act first,” Schnoor said.

He said that action would be in the direction of reductions in the emissions of greenhouse gases by 80 percent to 90 percent by 2050.

Scientists, engineers and economists all agree that energy consumption per capita is a bigger contributor to the problem of carbon dioxide emissions than population.

However, Schnoor took particular care to balance the overall context of climate change in terms of action, noting the positive benefits for the Earth’s climate that can and will be associated with reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. Schnoor suggested  strategies should broaden the scope of bioenergy to include solar, wind and tides, where important technology and policy breakthroughs will reward conservation and energy efficiency as long-term economic opportunities.