I guess my main problem with the nature of the climate change debate is that I want people to think about things before they do them, and complete proper research. Instead of mucking around with the Kyoto Protocol and carbon credits, I think the focus should be on increasing scientific research into alternative fuels. My concern is that if governments make emotional knee-jerk reactions, the cure may be as bad as the disease it is designed to alleviate.
Accordingly, the results of recent research on ethanol fuel are a salutory reminder for everyone to think carefully and take a deep breath before anything too drastic is done. Mark Jacobson, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University published an article in Environmental Science and Technology Online yesterday. The journal’s press release says:
His results…show that ethanol is no silver bullet for health. Switching to E85 blends (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline) could result in slightly higher ozone-related mortality, hospitalization, and asthma (9% higher in Los Angeles and 4% higher in the U.S. as a whole), the study finds. Cancer rates would be similar for gasoline and E85.
“It’s true that ethanol does decrease some pollutants, but it also increases some others,” Jacobson says. Compared with gasoline, ethanol tends to produce less benzene and butadiene, but more acetaldehyde and formaldehyde, when burned.
The result: more ozone and about 185 more deaths per year across the U.S., with 125 of those in Los Angeles. Jacobson studied that city in depth because of its ongoing smog problem and found that it has the right atmospheric chemistry to make the ethanol switch particularly problematic.
Previous studies have estimated the pollution and health effects of burning ethanol, but Jacobson says those researchers simply scaled up tailpipe emissions and plugged those numbers into outdated formulas to calculate ozone changes and cancer rates. His atmospheric model, called GATOR-GCMOM, accounted for the transport of tailpipe emissions across the U.S. along with chemical transformations in the atmosphere—key components that had been neglected in previous studies.
The findings suggest that ethanol cannot be promoted simply as a boon to public health, Jacobson adds. Other factors need to be studied and weighed before ethanol use is made widespread, he says, such as greenhouse-gas emissions, U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and the environmental impacts of growing plants for ethanol.
As an asthmatic, I’m not too keen on the sound of the side-effects of ethanol. Let’s look more closely at fuel cells, say I.