Title: Quantifying the Environmental Impacts of Biofuel Production: Knowns and Unknowns
Publisher: Cornell University
Publication Year: 2009
JRC N°: JRC52834
ISBN: 1441488294
URI: http://cip.cornell.edu/biofuels/
Type: Articles in periodicals and books
Abstract: In response to calls for energy security, climate change mitigation, and rural development, several governments (U.S., European Union, Brazil) have or will shortly establish mandatory targets for the incorporation of biofuels (defined here as fuels derived from plants or biological waste) into their liquid fuel portfolio (Chapter 2, Searchinger 2009). A number of recent papers, however, have pointed out that there are hard biophysical constraints on production - the amount of carbon fixed by all crops globally is already exceeded by the carbon released by fossil fuel combustion - and producing biofuels on all currently abandoned land would meet only ~7% of current energy demand (Campbell et al. 2008; Field et al. 2008). Additionally, legitimate concerns exist about the relative climate benefit of various biofuels (Crutzen et al. 2008) and competition for arable land between food, fiber, fuel and other ecosystem services (Zah et al. 2007; Searchinger et al. 2008, Melillo et al. 2009). Available technology for generation of electricity and heat from biomaterial is considerably more efficient than using that material for liquid fuel (Edwards et al. 2008; Chapter 5, Menichetti and Otto 2009). Nevertheless, a combination of tariffs, government mandates and complex tax structures suggest that liquid biofuel use will continue to grow over the coming decade in both the developed (Chapter 2, Searchinger 2009) and developing world (Chapter 15, Bekunda et al. 2009). We set two goals for this chapter: to review the available information on the environmental impacts of a few important biofuel feedstocks (corn and sugarcane ethanol, rapeseed biodiesel) and then to highlight major gaps in our knowledge that need to be addressed before a truly quantitative assessment of these feedstocks can be made. The chapter focuses mostly on global and regional energy supplies and the environmental costs of biofuel production with case studies provided for Brazil, the European Union, and the U.S. While we recognize that the adoption of biofuels may have real economic benefits, particularly in developing countries (discussed in Chapter 15, Bekunda et al. 2009), environmental concerns apply to all countries, and the sustainable production of biofuels will require a full accounting of the environmental and social ramifications of biofuel production. We begin by briefly reviewing the limits of life cycle analysis (LCA), as well as literature results from traditional and expanded LCA for a few of the current major biofuel crops. We then present preliminary results from recent research which aims for a fuller accounting of impacts from large increases in biofuel production by accounting for effects such as indirect land use change (e.g. Fargione et al. 2008; Searchinger et al. 2008) and transportation adjustments due price shifts in fuel (Bento and Landry 2008).
JRC Directorate:Sustainable Resources

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