U.S. needs environmental standards for biofuels
October 2, 2008
The U.S. lacks criteria to ensure that cellulosic ethanol production will not harm the environment, warn scientists writing in the journal Science. The researchers say that with proper safeguards, cellulosic ethanol can help the U.S. meet its energy needs sustainably.
“Environmental standards are needed now, before the industry moves out of its research and development phase,” said Phil Robertson, Michigan State University professor of crop and soil sciences and lead author of the paper. “With production standards and incentive programs, cellulosic biofuel cropping systems could provide significant environmental benefits.”
Most ethanol produced in the United States is currently derived from corn, a relatively poor feedstock given its low yield and high fertilizer requirements which have been linked to water pollution, the expanded “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, and significant greenhouse gas emissions.
Ethanol yield for various crops
Net energy yield for various crops
Given corn’s shortcomings for energy production, scientists, policy makers, and investors have pinned a lot of hope on “next generation” biofuels derived from cellulose in agricultural waste, woody grasses and trees, but environmental concerns still remain, including the impact of non-native species, destruction of biologically-rich ecosystems, fertilizer and irrigation requirements, and the potential for greenhouse gas emissions and pollution. The new paper says that while practices that can reduce the environmental impacts of current and future ethanol feedstocks have been identified, there are few incentives or policies to ensure that they are employed.
“Policies that support long-term sustainability of both our landscapes and our atmosphere are essential if we are to chart a low-carbon economy that is substantially better than business as usual,” write the authors. “Getting to such an economy will also
require a more comprehensive and collaborative research agenda than what has been undertaken to date.”
“Decision-makers at all levels need to understand that applying best available practices to biofuel crop production will have positive impacts both on the sustainability of our working lands and on providing a long-term place for biofuels in our renewable energy portfolio, and that the policies necessary to ensure this outcome are not currently in place.
“Sustainable biofuel production systems could play a highly positive role in mitigating climate change, enhancing environmental quality, and strengthening the global economy, but it will take sound, science-based policy and additional research effort to make this so,” they conclude.
Robertson, G.P. et al. Sustainable Biofuels Redux. 3 OCTOBER 2008 VOL 322 SCIENCE
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