April 22, 2012
When biofuels are properly produced they can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, boost the economy with an alternative energy source, and help preserve habitats that were previously cleared for other energy sources. Ideal biofuels are derived from feedstocks that have lower greenhouse gas emissions than those of fossil fuels, but they need to be produced without compromising the success of agriculture and production. Sustainable agricultural practices cannot only benefit our economy as a whole, but they allow for an efficient production of biofuels. Sustainable biomass feedstock programs include the growing of perennial plants on degraded lands abandoned from agricultural use, using crop residues to enrich the soils, harvesting wood and soils sustainably, mixing crops on agricultural land, and utilizing industrial wastes. Biofuels are the only alternative energy source to have completely the clean air act requirements in relation to the cleanliness of the energy source, therefore it is in our best interest to switch over to biofuels as soon as possible.
Here in California, many are pushing to adopt biofuels as an alternative energy source in order to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions. Although California is behind on the number of available biodiesel locations, the state is willing to increase the number of sites that offer this renewable source. The California Air and Resources Board has designated millions of dollars to be used for the building of biodiesel stations that will soon cover the state of California. Companies like Ceres Inc. are creating genetically modified crops to be used as biofuels. Although there is some skepticism towards the transition to biofuels, when biofuels are produced correctly and efficiently they offer an alternative that gives off energy while reducing carbon emissions. Multiple companies like Ceres support the use of biofuels in the state of California including companies in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Specifically Amyris Biotechnologies in Emeryville and Cobalt technologies in Mountain view were recognized by “Biofuels Digest” as a couple of the most transformative technologies of 2010.
California as a state produces around 80 million gross tons of biomass each year which creates the potential to have 32 million tons of feedstock for biofuel production. At the rate that California’s agricultural production is going, each annual harvest has the potential to produce about 300 million gallons of ethanol each year. That statistic alone is a huge incentive to switch over to the agricultural based energy source.
California is required to reduce their carbon emissions by 10% by 2020 and biodiesel offers a plausible way for the state to meet the predetermined goal. Studies show that carbon dioxide emissions were reduced by 78% from biodiesel compared to petroleum diesel. Biodiesel accounts for a great reduction in carbon emissions because plants capture the carbon dioxide that is released from the burning of biodiesel and later used as fuel. This is a closed system that prevents carbon emissions. Obviously there are negative impacts to using biofuels because a lot of land needs to be used and deforestation for agricultural land can create enough carbon emissions to take away any benefits of biofuels. Another concern is that it takes more energy to produce biofuels than the amount of energy that biofuels offset. However if they are created in a sustainable and efficient way, California will see a drop in their greenhouse gas emissions. Each energy source has both pros and cons, but considering the current state of our planet and global warming, biofuels appear to be a viable option in reducing global and national emissions.
Alanna Waldman and Chantal Morgan are undergraduates in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
September 19, 2011
Although not often talked about in an urgent manner, desertification is one of the most relevant and concerning environmental problems the world currently faces. It will be one of the most difficult problems to combat because of the many intricacies and challenges involved with it. The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification defines desertification as, “land degradation in arid, semi-arid, and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities.” A recent study evaluating desertification indicators has shown that 38% of the world’s land area is at risk of desertification. In fact it is estimated that 1 billion people are under threat if the trend of desertification continues.
With that many people at risk we have to look at what is causing the desertification and why its effects are so bad. Desertification is caused by two main factors: human interference and climate change. The human interference comes from our farming and animal grazing practices. When we overuse farming fields in dry areas the crops take nutrients from the soil faster than they can be replaced. Along with this, poor irrigation techniques remove water from the land faster than it can be replenished. Also adding to the removal of water from the land is climate change that causes higher temperatures and more/longer droughts. With less water holding the soil together erosion increases greatly, therefore removing the topsoil that is so vital to plant growth. Exacerbating this problem is overgrazing which removes plants that would usually anchor the soil and lessen the wind’s effects. All of these issues together change the soil structure leaving it sandy, saline, without nutrients, lacking biodiversity, and generally unable to support crops and animals.
Once the land has reached this level of degradation the effects are fairly obvious: without adequate food from the land some or all of the humans in the area are forced to leave or starve. In developed nations this may not seem likely because most people are not growing their own food, sustainable farming practices are available/affordable, and if worst comes to worst support systems are in place to take care of displaced people. In contrast in developing nations (especially in Africa) the opposite is true: most people grow their own food, there is no knowledge of sustainable farming practices, even if there was most practices do not make sense economically, and when people are displaced they have nowhere to go. Considering this it is shocking to know that 90% of the inhabitants of drylands live in developing countries. This means that the people most at risk from desertification have almost no resources to combat it due to poverty. As ex-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan says, “[Desertification] is partly caused by poverty, and exacerbates it. Together with other problems, it leads to forced migration from impoverished rural areas to cities that are themselves often ill-equipped to adequately shelter and employ new arrivals.” The link between poverty and desertification is the crux of the challenge of stopping desertification. If things stay the way they are by 2020 an estimated 60 million people will be uprooted from sub-Saharan Africa and burden of the resulting refugees will be placed on the rest of the world.
The way to overcome this challenge will be through a coordinated humanitarian and environmental effort aimed at helping developing countries where desertification hits hardest. The combined effort needs to work to educate these people on desertification while also aiming to reduce poverty, therefore providing them with alternatives to unsustainable farming. This shows why desertification is such a daunting challenge because it requires revitalizing entire nations before progress can be made. The UN Convention to Combat Desertification is currently trying to do this but large scale, international initiatives need to be taken before we can even begin to combat desertification.
About the authors: Stephen Lowe is working towards his bachelors degree in Environmental Studies in the USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.