What is in this article?:
- Biofuels study raises doubts on cost, fossil fuel reduction
- Impact on fossil fuels
- A new biofuels study suggests that existing biofuel policies have been very costly, produce negligible reductions in fossil fuel use and increase, rather than decrease, greenhouse gas emissions.
A new study by economists at Oregon State University questions the cost-effectiveness of biofuels and says they would barely reduce fossil fuel use and would likely increase greenhouse gas emissions.
The idea that biofuels can reduce dependency on fossil fuels and mitigate climate change has led governments to promote them as substitutes for gasoline and petroleum-based diesel, using mandates and subsidies, said Bill Jaeger, the lead author on the study.
"Our results suggest that existing biofuel policies have been very costly, produce negligible reductions in fossil fuel use and increase, rather than decrease, greenhouse gas emissions," said Jaeger, a professor in the agricultural and resource economics department at OSU.
Biofuels were initially seen as a solution to energy and environmental problems, Jaeger said, because the carbon dioxide that's emitted when they're burned is equivalent to what they had absorbed from the atmosphere when the crops were growing. Thus, biofuels were assumed to add little or no carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
But the bigger picture is more complex, Jaeger said, in part because biofuels are produced and transported using fossil fuels. For example, nitrogen fertilizer, which is made using natural gas, is used to grow corn for ethanol. Additionally, growing biofuel feedstocks can push food production onto previously unfarmed land, according to well-documented research, Jaeger said. When this new acreage is cleared and tilled, it can release carbon that accumulated over long periods in soil and vegetation, thus increasing greenhouse gas emissions, he said.
The costs of these side effects tend to be overlooked by policies that focus only on gallon-for-gallon substitutions, he added.
The researchers focused on the major mandated and currently used biofuels worldwide: corn ethanol, soybean biodiesel, cellulosic ethanol from switchgrass grown in the United States, canola biodiesel produced in Europe, and sugarcane ethanol produced in Brazil and exported to the United States or Europe.
They evaluated them in terms of their contribution to reducing fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions. They also compared their costs and effectiveness to two alternative policies: an increase in the gas tax and the implementation of energy efficiency improvements.
Their results indicated that all of the biofuel crops were much less cost-effective than the two alternative policies in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel use.
"Each dollar spent on energy improvement programs would be 20 times more effective in reducing fossil fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions than a similar cost for the corn ethanol program," Jaeger said. "Likewise, a gas tax increase would be 21 times more effective than promoting cellulosic ethanol."
Overall, it was estimated that U.S.-produced biofuels would cost between 20 and 31 times more than energy efficiency improvements that would reduce gas consumption by 1 percent. The study also reported that combining a gas tax increase with energy efficiency improvements could reduce U.S. fossil fuel use by more than 15 percent (or cut petroleum fuel use by more than 35 percent).