Classroom Resources: Biofuels Déjà Vu

Biofuels Déjà Vu
by David Malakoff
Volume 10, number 2

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Discussion Questions

1.    What fundamental conflict of ideals within the environmental community does this article address? After reading the article, do you feel that human energy sustainability will be achieved only at a further cost to biodiversity, or do you feel that there is a solution to benefit both? Is one side of the “green” movement blind to the needs of the other? How does biodiversity conservation rank in terms of priority for the new “green” economy?

2.    What do you think of Tilman’s idea that prairies could produce more than double the bioenergy compared to traditional agriculture, and thus may accomplish both biodiversity conservation and biofuels production? Refer to the first box in the article and Tilman et al.’s 2006 Science paper for more specific information.

3.    What is cellulosic biofuel? How might it deliver more energy, with less harm to the environment? What are some potential waste sources for the energy? We have a United States Presidential administration that is clearly in favor of seeking alternative energy sources and ending dependence on fossil fuels (see web link below). What kind of priority setting do you think this administration has done in terms of other environmental concerns?

4.    How much land may be required to bring the portion of the world’s energy provided by cellulosic fuels to 10%, and where on the planet would be the hardest hit? What role might marginal lands play in mitigating these effects on wild biodiversity?

5.    What tradeoffs in your own life can you envision that involve balancing your need for energy with your concern for wild plants, animals, and the landscapes in which they exist? Having read this article, do you feel that biofuels are a solution for global climate change and the world’s energy problems? Or do you sense that if humans don’t drastically reduce energy demand we are facing an even greater biodiversity crisis than the one we have now? As a student, how can you make a difference?

Websites for Further Information

•    The White House Energy and Environment page: http://www.whitehouse.gov/issues/energy_and_environment/
•    Cellulosic fuel production: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cellulosic_ethanol
•    Dr. David Tilman’s webpage at the University of Minnesota with bibliography of his research on biofuels

Biofuels in the News

•    Ethanol’s grocery  bill  (Wall Street Journal, June 3, 2009): http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124389966385274413.html
•    Brazil to invest in ethanol workers, environment (Guardian, June 1, 2009): http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/feedarticle/8536248

Peer-reviewed Literature (in addition to the citations listed in the article)

•    Fargione, J., J. Hill, D. Tilman, S. Polasky and P. Hawthorne. 2008. Land clearing and the biofuel carbon debt. Science 319: 1235-1238.
•    Koh, L.P. 2007. Potential habitat and biodiversity losses from intensified biodiesel feedstock production. Conservation Biology 21: 1373-1375.
•    Groom, M.J., E.M. Gray, and P.A. Townsend 2008. Biofuels and biodiversity: principles for creating better policies. Conservation Biology 22: 602-609.

Key Concepts

•    Tradeoffs, energy and environment
•    Biofuel
•    Energy production
•    Energy sustainability
•    Climate change

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