We have focused much of our attention over the past few weeks on the role of agriculture in both global and domestic efforts to combat climate change. The sector has many benefits to offer in reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that scientists say are causing global temperatures to rise, creating volatile weather patterns that generate extended periods of drought, violent storms and/or heavy flooding that impact our ability to produce food, feed, fiber and energy.
Recognizing agriculture’s impacts in combating climate change, we’ve cited the low- and no-till cropping practices and cover crops that help sequester carbon in the soil and improve nutrient and water use efficiency; the growing of cover crops to enhance soil quality; the reduction of methane emissions and the generation of renewable energy through the treatment of livestock waste in anaerobic digesters; the siting of no-carbon wind and solar facilities on rural lands; and the production of biofuels.
While recognition of the role of agriculture in meeting climate change challenges is growing among world leaders, it is of concern that biofuels and the low-carbon benefits they provide, especially when compared to fossil-based fuels like gasoline and diesel, continue to fall short of the acknowledgment they deserve as the world aims to keep temperatures from exceeding the 2-degree-Celsius limit by 2050 that scientists say will lead to catastrophe.
Even with the advent of electric vehicles, a report released this week by the DOE’s Energy Information Administration makes clear that s vast majority of the global transportation fleet will continue to run on energy-intense liquid fuels, but to meet the climate change targets nations of the world have set, that supply must include high-octane, low-carbon emitting biofuels.
In fact, as explained in a guest blog posted here last November by Michigan State Professor Bruce Dale, a leader in the DOE Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center at MSU, historic growth in light duty vehicle travel can be maintained and achieve the 80-percent GHG reduction needed to meet climate targets only if nearly all petroleum is replaced with alternative low-carbon fuels.
It’s important to note that the benefits available through biofuels are not in the future, but are demonstrated here and now.
Research from Steffen Mueller of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Energy Resources Center, and Stefan Unnasch, managing director of Life Cycle Associates, show that the carbon intensity of corn grain ethanol is 33 percent less than the amount measured for gasoline.
A study by Argonne National Laboratory found that when the entire fuel lifecycles are considered, using corn-based ethanol instead of gasoline reduces life cycle GHG emissions by 19-48 percent, depending on the source of energy used during ethanol production.
Another analysis – this one released last year by the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) – shows that over the past decade, the RFS has reduced U.S. transportation-related carbon emissions by nearly 590 million metric tons, not to mention displacing nearly 1.9 billion barrels of foreign oil.
Elsewhere, the analysis of 95,000 soil samples collected from farmer’s fields across eastern and central South Dakota between 1985 and 2010, support the theory that many of the surface soils in the region became carbon sinks when seeded with corn produced for ethanol and other uses.
Given the wealth of evidence proving the value of biofuels in meeting climate change challenges, it’s really not that surprising that even the major oil companies have long looked at the renewable alternatives, and have invested more than $9.4 billion on ethanol and other plant-based fuels between 2005 and 2013, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. ExxonMobil recently announced an agreement with Renewable Energy Group Inc. to study the production of biodiesel – deemed an “advanced” biofuel because it generates 50 percent fewer emissions than that produced by conventional diesel fuel – by fermenting renewable cellulosic sugars from sources such as agricultural waste.
Renewable energy advocates have strong information and research at hand to pursue the case with policy makers that biofuels are a viable element in taking on climate change, and they must be supported. When faced with challenges to the value of biofuels in our transportation fuel supply – like a bill introduced in the House this week that would impose a 9.7-percent cap on ethanol blends in the U.S. transportation pool – every resource must be brought to bear to insure clean fuels are given the opportunity to do the job they have been created to do.