Monday, October 24, 2016

Carbon balance effects of real-world biofuel use

Most of the debate about the environmental merits of biofuel use has been based on lifecycle analysis (LCA). Also known as life-cycle assessment, carbon footprint analysis, "cradle-to-grave" analysis, or (in the case of motor fuels) "well-to-wheels" analysis, LCA is a method for adding up all of the impacts of interest associated with a product. It includes the effects of producing a product and its component materials, associated shipping and packaging effects (as relevant), the use of the product and any related disposal effects. For assessing climatic impacts, LCA tallies the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with the production, use and disposal of the product. When the product is a motor fuel, the numerical result of such LCA modeling is called the fuel's "carbon intensity," as calculated for California's Low-Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS), for example.

A cornfield does not absorb CO2 from the atmosphere
any more quickly 
when it is used to make ethanol than
when it is grown for food or feed. 
This basic fact of 
carbon mass balance is ignored by the 
lifecycle studies
that claim climate benefits for biofuels. 
The question, "how does the overall emissions impact of using a biofuel such as ethanol compare to that of a fossil fuel such as gasoline?" seems straightforward, and sounds like something that LCA can answer. However, that question is actually ill-posed scientifically speaking. In other words, when one looks carefully at what actually happens when a given biofuel substitutes for a fossil fuel, it turns out that LCA cannot give a straightforward, unambiguous answer. Properly qualified, the answer will always be, "it depends." And it doesn't just depend on the particular fuel and how it is produced; it also depends on the design of the LCA model and the assumptions it invokes.