Eleven Leading National Experts Reach Consensus on Good Biofuels

“Recent analyses of the energy and greenhouse-gas performance of alternative biofuels have ignited a controversy that may be best resolved by applying two simple principles,” begins the summary from a new joint research paper entitled, “Beneficial Biofuels – The Food, Energy and Environment Trilemma“. The paper was published in the July 17, 2009 issue of Science.

“In a world seeking solutions to its energy, environmental, and food challenges, society cannot afford to miss out on the global greenhouse-gas emission reductions and the local environmental and societal benefits when biofuels are done right. However, society also cannot accept the undesirable impacts of biofuels done wrong.”

Many people are quick to abandon all biofuels due to several of the challenges proposed with the production of first generation biofuels including indirect land use. However, science is developing solutions to these issues and the next generation of biofuels will have less negative impact. (Although the worst biofuel is better than the best gasoline in terms of negative impact.)

The authors note that done right, biofuels can be produced in large quantities and have multiple benefits, but only if they come from feedstocks produced with low life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions as well as minimal competition with food production. No one can forget the “food versus fuel” debate that raged last summer only to discover that it wasn’t accurate.

The lead author of the paper was noted ecologist David Tilman with University of Minnesota. He says of the research, “The world needs to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy, but recent findings have thrown the emerging biofuels industry into a quandary. We met to seek solutions. We found that the next generation of biofuels can be highly beneficial if produced properly.”

Additional authors include:

  • Jason Hill and Jonathan Foley, University of Minnesota
  • Robert Socolow, Eric Larson, Stephen Pacala, Tim Searchinger, and Robert Williams, Princeton
  • Lee Lynd, Dartmouth
  • John Reilly, MIT
  • Chris Somerville, University of California Berkeley

The paper was released in coincide with climate change policy debates in Congress and tackles land use issues that have generated a significant amount of controversy, specifically indirect land use.

Robert Socolow, co-director of the Carbon Mitigation Institute said in response, “It’s essential that legislation take the best science into account, even when that requires acknowledging and undoing earlier mistakes. Careful science reasoning revealed accounting rules that separate promising from self-defeating strategies. Future carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere will tell us when we’re kidding ourselves about what actually works. For carbon management, the atmosphere is the ultimate accountant.”

Photo from U of M

The solution? To focus on five major sources of renewable biomass:

  • Perennial plants grown on degraded lands abandoned from agricultural use
  • Crop residues
  • Sustainably harvested wood and forest residues
  • Double crops and mixed cropping systems
  • Municipal and industrial wastes

These sources combined can provide more than 500 million tons of biomass per year in the U.S. without incurring any signifianct land use CO2 releases.

Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment, concludes, “Technology experts, energy systems analysts, climatologists, ecologists and policy exeprts all agreed: Biofuels ‘done right’ have a bright future in solving our energy and environmental challenges.”

Joanna Schroeder

Joanna is a writer and consultant specializing in renewable energy and sustainable agriculture issues.