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Biofuel Isn’t As Carbon Neutral As We Want It to Be

Claudia Baldwin

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If you’ve pumped gas at a U.S. service station over the past decade, you’ve put biofuel in your tank. Thanks to the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), almost all gasoline sold nationwide is required to contain 10 percent ethanol — a fuel made from plant sources, mainly corn.

With the recent rise in pump prices, biofuel lobbies are pressing to boost that target to 15 percent or more. At the same time, some policymakers are calling for reforms. For example, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators has introduced a bill that would eliminate the corn ethanol portion of the mandate.

Enacted in the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the RFS promised to enhance energy security, cut carbon dioxide emissions and boost income for rural America. The program has certainly raised profits for portions of the agricultural industry, but in my view it has failed to fulfill its other promises. Indeed, studies by some scientists, including me, find that biofuel use has increased rather than decreased CO2 emissions to date.

Current law sets a target of producing and using 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022 as part of the roughly 200 billion gallons of motor fuel that U.S. motor vehicles burn each year. As of 2019, drivers were using only 20 billion gallons of renewable fuels yearly — mainly corn ethanol and soybean biodiesel. Usage declined in 2020 because of the pandemic, as did most energy use. Although the 2021 tally is not yet complete, the program remains far from its 36 billion-gallon goal. I believe the time is ripe to repeal the RFS, or at least greatly scale it back.

Higher profits for many farmers

The RFS’s clearest success has been boosting income for corn and soybean farmers and related agricultural firms. It also has built up a sizable domestic biofuel industry.

The Renewable Fuels Association, a trade group for the biofuels industry, estimates that the RFS has generated over 300,000 jobs in recent years. Two-thirds of these jobs are in the top ethanol-producing states: Iowa; Nebraska; Illinois; Minnesota; Indiana; and South Dakota. Given Iowa’s key role in presidential primaries, most politicians with national ambitions find it prudent to embrace biofuels.

The idea that biofuels are good for the environment rests on the assumption that they are inherently carbon neutral. But subsequent research has shown that they are not.

The RFS displaces a modest amount of petroleum, shifting some income away from the oil industry and into agribusiness. Nevertheless, biofuels’ contribution to U.S. energy security pales compared with gains from expanded domestic oil production through hydraulic fracturing — which brings its own severe environmental damages. And using ethanol in fuel poses other risks, including damage to small engines and higher emissions from fuel fumes.

For consumers, biofuel use has had a varying, but overall small, effect on pump prices. Renewable fuel policy has little leverage in the world oil market, where the biofuel mandate’s penny-level effects are no match for oil’s dollar-scale volatility.

Biofuels are not carbon-neutral

The idea that biofuels are good for the environment rests on the assumption that they are inherently carbon neutral — meaning that the CO2 emitted when biofuels are burned is fully offset by the CO2 that feedstocks such as corn and soybeans absorb as they grow. This assumption is coded into computer models used to evaluate fuels.

Leading up to passage of the RFS, such modeling found modest CO2 reductions for corn ethanol and soybean biodiesel. It promised greater benefits from cellulosic ethanol — a more advanced type of biofuel that would be made from nonfood sources, such as crop residues and energy crops such as willow and switchgrass.

But subsequent research has shown that biofuels are not actually carbon-neutral. Correcting this mistake by evaluating real-world changes in cropland carbon uptake reveals that biofuel use has increased CO2 emissions.

One big factor is that making biofuels amplifies land-use change. As harvests are diverted from feeding humans and livestock to produce fuel, additional farmland is needed to compensate. That means forests are cut down and prairies are plowed up to carve out new acres for crop production, triggering very large CO2 releases.


About 40 percent of corn produced in the U.S. is used to make ethanol. Image courtesy of Shuli Hallak via Getty Images.

Expanding farmland for biofuel production is also bad for the environment in other ways. Studies show that it has reduced the abundance and diversity of plants and animals worldwide. In the U.S., it has amplified other adverse impacts of industrial agriculture, such as nutrient runoff and water pollution.

The failure of cellulosic ethanol

When Congress expanded the biofuel mandate in 2007, a key factor that induced legislators from states outside the Midwest to support it was the belief that a coming generation of cellulosic ethanol would produce even greater environmental, energy and economic benefits. Biofuel proponents claimed that cellulosic fuels were close to becoming commercially viable.

Almost 15 years later, in spite of the mandate and billions of dollars in federal support, cellulosic ethanol has flopped. Total production of liquid cellulosic biofuels has recently hovered around 10 million gallons per year — a tiny fraction of the 16 billion gallons that the RFS calls for producing in 2022. Technical challenges have proved to be more daunting than proponents claimed.


Making cellulosic ethanol from plants such as switchgrass is complicated and remains unaffordable despite large subsidies. Image courtesy of Karen Kasmauski via Getty Images

Environmentally speaking, I see the cellulosic failure as a relief. If the technology were to succeed, I believe it would likely unleash an even more aggressive global expansion of industrial agriculture — large-scale farms that raise only one or two crops and rely on highly mechanized methods with intensive chemical fertilizer and pesticide use. Some such risk remains as petroleum refiners invest in bio-based diesel production and producers modify corn ethanol facilities to produce biojet fuel.

Ripple effects on lands and Indigenous people

Today the vast majority of biofuels are made from crops such as corn and soybeans that also are used for food and animal feed. Global markets for major commodity crops are closely coupled, so increased demand for biofuel production drives up their prices globally.

This price pressure amplifies deforestation and land-grabbing in locations from Brazil to Thailand. The Renewable Fuel Standard thus aggravates displacement of Indigenous communities, destruction of peatlands and similar harms along agricultural frontiers worldwide, mainly in developing countries.

Some researchers have found that adverse effects of biofuel production on land use, crop prices and climate are much smaller than previously estimated. Nevertheless, the uncertainties surrounding land use change and net effects on CO2 emissions are enormous. The complex modeling of biofuel-related commodity markets and land use is impossible to verify, as it extrapolates effects across the globe and into the future.

Rather than biofuels, a much better way to address transportation-related CO2 emissions is through improving efficiency, particularly raising gasoline vehicle fuel economy while electric cars continue to advance.

A stool with two weak legs

What can we conclude from 16 years of the RFS? As I see it, two of its three policy legs are quite wobbly: Its energy security rationale is largely moot; and its climate rationale has proved false.

Nevertheless, key agricultural interests strongly support the program and may be able to prop it up indefinitely. Indeed, as some commentators have observed, the biofuel mandate has become another agribusiness entitlement. Taxpayers probably would have to pay dearly in a deal to repeal the RFS. For the sake of the planet, it would be a cost worth paying.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.

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Episode 327: Meet Carbontech Startup Air Company

Claudia Baldwin

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This week’s run time is 29:34.

WEEK IN REVIEW (3:45)
FEATURES
Turning carbon into value (18:55)

Gregory Constantine, co-founder and CEO of Air Company, talks growth plans for his startup — a leading carbon use company specializing in consumer goods such as vodka and fragrance made from air.

*Music in this episode: Lee Rosevere: “And So Then,” “4th Ave. Walkup,” “I’m Going for a Coffee” and “Let That Sink In.”

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To make sure you don’t miss the newest episode of GreenBiz 350, subscribe on iTunes or Spotify. Have a question or suggestion for a future segment? E-mail us at [email protected].

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The Sustainability Scorecard, Reviewed

Claudia Baldwin

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A version of this article originally appeared in our Circularity Weekly newsletter. Subscribe to the newsletter here.

I was invited to read a new book and interview one of the authors. As someone who has long enjoyed reading books about sustainability, it was very flattering to be sent a copy of a new book, “The Sustainability Scorecard,” by Paul Anastas and Urvashi Bhatnagar, and asked to provide my thoughts in a review.

Many of our Circularity Weekly readers are probably familiar with Paul Anastas. A hero of mine since graduate school, Anastas is a deep thinker, a brilliant chemist and an engaging speaker. I was far less familiar with Urvashi Bhatnagar. Fortunately for me, I had the opportunity to chat with Bhatnagar over the phone about her book and immediately became a fan. A healthcare executive and population health expert with a keen eye toward sustainability, Bhatnagar brings a different perspective to “The Sustainability Scorecard” that pairs quite well with Anastas.

“The Sustainability Scorecard” provides a simple and straightforward method for identifying where a company currently is on its sustainability journey and a method to track progress. The book proves that sustainability makes economic as well as ecological sense and guides leaders in creating and scaling their own green supply-chain initiative. I’ve read a lot of sustainability books, and this one provides the most practical steps for corporate improvement. According to Goodreads, “Through repeatable, reliable processes that address operating model design and new key performance indicators to scaling, this book is a practical guide that leaders can rely on to make their existing systems more sustainable and profitable.”

What I learned No. 1: Entrenched systems are not so entrenched

To some degree, this takeaway from the book follows quite well on my piece from a couple Fridays ago. We often get the false sense that the status quo is the status quo is the status quo is the status quo (Wait, did I just type that a bunch of times? Whoops, leaving it in because it helps make the point). “Entrenched systems and globe-spanning companies may appear impossible to dislodge,” Bhatnagar and Anastas write, “but consider that none of the top-10 most valuable companies today were on that list in 1990. Many didn’t even exist in 1990. Big changes can happen within only a few decades.” Because of this, we need to overcome the learned behavior that we can’t make a difference because the behemoths in the economy will never change.

What I learned No. 2: The scorecard framework

Bhatnagar and Anastas have provided a straightforward and scalable model for firms to move directionally towards sustainability. The framework focuses on four areas:

Waste prevention
Maximizing efficiency and performance
Renewable inputs
Safe degradation of materials

While these endpoints are largely rooted in environmental sustainability, they also cross over into social wellbeing for workers, fence-line communities and product users — all very important considerations for any sustainability practice.

When I looked at the scorecard, I was struck by how it is simultaneously simple and in-depth. The four high-level goals manage to get to the heart of how to make more sustainable products and processes without overcomplicating things. The authors have developed a data-driven methodology that can be approached whether you are starting your sustainability work (Initiate phase), are down the path but still learning (Develop phase) or are an industry leader that’s been focused on sustainability for quite some time (Maturity phase). The key to this framework, and I think one of the key insights I pulled from the book, is that directionality is important. In other words, set a direction for your sustainability work that aligns with the best science available and start moving. Sure, the pace we are moving is important, but the direction is far more so.

What I learned No. 3: Perfection is unattainable

When I spoke with Bhatnagar about the book, she mentioned this was one of the sticking points in writing and publishing it. There is always a desire within any framework to define the perfect state, to show users how to grab the brass ring. Bhatnager and Anastas argue that sustainability doesn’t have a perfect state. Even if firms can achieve the best score in all areas of the sustainability scorecard (zeros for all categories in this case), there will always be work to do. The work could be remediating the issues the firm has created in the past or pushing upstream and downstream partners to improve their sustainability. In other words, firms should be reaching for perfection, but it should always be getting farther away as the science evolves and shows us what it means to be sustainable as an individual, a company, a nation and a global community.

Overall

When I look at this book and the Sustainability Scorecard as a whole, I am excited for the structure it can bring to corporate sustainability in all sectors of the economy. Having spent a considerable amount of time in the private sector trying to build sustainability programs, I can confidently say that these broadly applicable frameworks are always welcome as inputs to a sustainability strategy.

I’d encourage folks to pick up this book, give it a read and think about how you can apply the Sustainability Scorecard to your own work. If you set directional goals, track data and measure progress, you can ensure you are moving in the right direction. And remember, if you reach for the brass ring and fall, at least you tried.

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Environment

Episode 326: the Heat Index; a Historic Climate Policy Opp

Claudia Baldwin

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This week’s run time is 44:51.

WEEK IN REVIEW (3:30)
FEATURES
A sweltering European summer (21:05)

James Murray, editor-in-chief of BusinessGreen, chats about record-breaking heat waves in the U.K. and Europe are challenging infrastructure and economies, and reshaping the dialogue about climate risk.

Cognizant CSO reflects on climate change and employee well-being (30:20)

Sophia Mendelsohn, chief sustainability officer and global head of ESG at tech services firm Cognizant, addresses the company’s broad ESG strategy and why employee well-being needs to be considered in the context of climate change.

*Music in this episode: Lee Rosevere: “Keeping Stuff Together,” “Not My Problem,” “Snakes,” “Southside.”

STAY CONNECTED

To make sure you don’t miss the newest episode of GreenBiz 350, subscribe on iTunes or Spotify. Have a question or suggestion for a future segment? E-mail us at [email protected].

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