Thursday, February 8, 2018

Biofuels vs. Biodiversity and the Need to Think Beyond Carbon Neutral

Seminar given at the University of Michigan, Thursday, February 8, 2018, as part of the 2016-2018 "Beyond Carbon Neutral" seminar series.

Download the presentation slides [PDF]


Just over a decade ago, policymakers gave a big boost to biofuels through the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and similar policies. These policies included sustainability provisions for protecting sensitive lands; the intent was to spur the production of advanced biofuels that would be sustainable in many ways including low CO2 emissions. Now, new studies appear each year revealing the destruction of diverse habitats as biofuel production amplifies the global demand for land. There have also been multiple bankruptcies of highly-subsidized advanced biofuel operations. What went wrong and how can we find a better path forward?

To answer these questions, this talk synthesizes findings from the recent literature, including the speaker's own work, regarding the impact of biofuel production on land use, biodiversity and CO2 emissions. It re-examines the assumptions that underpin renewable fuel policies in light of ecological and economic realities. Mistakes could have been avoided had analysts been more attentive to the terrestrial carbon cycle and the fact that increasing the rate of net carbon uptake is crucial for any form of bio-based climate mitigation. The discussion highlights the importance of "Thinking Beyond Carbon Neutral," which in this context means properly valuing the carbon-storing ecosystem service that biologically rich lands provide. This insight is consistent with environmental economics, notably, the importance of putting a uniform price on carbon so that terrestrial carbon stocks are properly valued and all CO2 emissions are managed regardless of their origin.

Given below is a list of the references cited in the presentation.  


Arima, EY, P Richards, R Walker and MM Caldas. 2011. Statistical confirmation of indirect land use change in the Brazilian Amazon. Environ Res Lett 6(2): 024010.    

Brooke, R, G Fogel, A Glaser, E Griffin and K Johnson. 2010. Corn Ethanol and Wildlife: How increases in corn plantings are affecting habitat and wildlife in the Prairie Pothole Region. Report prepared for the National Wildlife Federation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, School of Natural Resources and Environment, January.

CARB. 2012. LCFS Lookup Tables as of December 2012. Sacramento, CA: California Air Resources Board.

DeCicco, JM 2013. Biofuel's carbon balance: doubts, certainties and implications. Climatic Change 121(4): 801-814.

DeCicco, JM 2015. The liquid carbon challenge: evolving views on transportation fuels and climate. WIREs Energy Environ 4(1): 98-114.

DeCicco, JM, et al. 2016. Carbon balance effects of U.S. biofuel production and use. Climatic Change 138(3): 667-80.

DeCicco, JM 2017. Author's response to commentary on "Carbon balance effects of U.S. biofuel production and use." Climatic Change 144(2): 123-29.

EIA. 2016. Monthly Energy Review. Washington, DC: Energy Information Administration.

EISA. 2007. Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. Public Law 110-140, 110th Congress, approved December 19, 2007. Washington, DC: U.S. Congress.

Fargione, J, J Hill, D Tilman, S Polasky & P Hawthorne. 2008. Land clearing and the biofuel carbon debt. Science 319: 1235-38, 29 February.

Farrell, AE, et al. 2006. Ethanol can contribute to energy and environmental goals. Science 311: 506-508, 27 January.

GCP. 2017. Carbon Budget 2017. Global Carbon Project:

Gibbs, HK, et al. 2010. Tropical forests were the primary sources of new agricultural land in the 1980s and 1990s. Proc Nat Acad Sci 107(38): 16732-37.

Griscom, BW, el al. 2017. Natural climate solutions. Proc Nat Acad Sci 114(44): 11645-50,    

IEA. 2011. Technology Roadmap: Biofuels for Transport. Paris: International Energy Agency.

IEA. 2017. Tracking CleanEnergy Progress 2017. Paris: International Energy Agency.

Kline KL, Oladosu GA, Dale VH, McBride AC. 2011. Scientific analysis is essential to assess biofuel policy effects: in response to the paper by Kim and Dale on "Indirect land-use change for biofuels: testing predictions and improving analytical methodologies." Biomass and Bioenergy 35(10): 4488-91.

Lark, TJ, M Salmon & HK Gibbs. 2015. Cropland expansion outpaces agricultural and biofuel policies in the United States. Environ Res Lett 10:044003.

NRDC. 2004. Growing Energy: How Biofuels Can Help End America's Oil Dependence. New York: Natural Resources Defense Council, December.

Searchinger, T, et al. 2008. Use of U.S. croplands for biofuels increases greenhouse gases through emissions from land-use change. Science 319: 1238-40, 29 February.

UCS. 2008. The 2007 Renewable Fuel Standard: A key first step to reducing global warming pollution from our fuels. Fact Sheet. Washington, DC:  Union of Concerned Scientists, October.

Wang, MQ. 2005. Updated Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Results of Fuel Ethanol. Presentation at the 15th International Symposium on Alcohol Fuels, San Diego, CA, September 26-28.

Wang, MQ, et al. 2012. Well-to-wheels energy use and greenhouse gas emissions of ethanol from corn, sugarcane and cellulosic biomass for US use. Environ. Res. Lett. 7: 045905.

Wise, M, et al. 2009. Implications of limiting CO2 concentrations for land use and energy. Science 324: 1183-86, 29 May.

Wright,  CK, B Larson, TJ Lark and HK Gibbs. 2017. Recent grassland losses are concentrated around U.S. ethanol refineries. Environ Res Lett 12.044001.

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