Carbon balance effects of U.S. biofuel production and use (Climatic Change, 2016)
Authors: John M. DeCicco, Danielle Yuqiao Liu, Joonghyeok Heo, Rashmi Krishnan, Angelika Kurthen and Louise Wang
The use of liquid biofuels has expanded over the past decade in response to policies such as the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) that promote their use for transportation. One rationale is the belief that biofuels are inherently carbon neutral, meaning that only production-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions need to be tallied when comparing them to fossil fuels. This assumption is embedded in the lifecycle analysis (LCA) modeling used to justify and administer such policies. LCA studies have often found that crop-based biofuels such as corn ethanol and biodiesel offer at least modest net GHG reductions relative to petroleum fuels. Data over the period of RFS expansion enable empirical assessment of net CO2 emission effects. This analysis evaluates the direct carbon exchanges (both emissions and uptake) between the atmosphere and the U.S. vehicle-fuel system (motor vehicles and the physical supply chain for motor fuels) over 2005–2013. While U.S. biofuel use rose from 0.37 to 1.34 EJ/yr over this period, additional carbon uptake on cropland was enough to offset only 37 % of the biofuel-related biogenic CO2 emissions. This result falsifies the assumption of a full offset made by LCA and other GHG accounting methods that assume biofuel carbon neutrality. Once estimates from the literature for process emissions and displacement effects including land-use change are considered, the conclusion is that U.S. biofuel use to date is associated with a net increase rather than a net decrease in CO2 emissions.