The benefits of biofuels: Unrealistic expectations?

  • 2011•02•10     Yokohama

    Dr. Jason Hill speaks on "Biofuels Sustainability" at UNU-IAS in Yokohama. Photo: Makiko Arima/UNU-IAS.

    On Friday, 4 February, the UNU Institute of Advanced Studies in Yokohama kicked off the UNU-IAS 2011 Seminar Series with a presentation on “Biofuels Sustainability: Lessons in Life-Cycle Assessment”. The lecturer was Dr. Jason D. Hill, Assistant Professor in the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering, University of Minnesota (USA).

    Dr. Per Stromberg, a UNU-IAS Research Fellow, opened the seminar by introducing Dr. Hill as an established and much-cited contributor to the field of biofuels. The presentation that followed centred on the key question that Dr. Hill has been pursuing for the past five years: “Does the use of biofuels in place of oil benefit society?”

    Dr. Hill referred to his experience in using life-cycle assessment to understand the impact of corn ethanol production and use in the United States to reveal problematic aspects of current US energy policy. He focused particularly on the expectations surrounding biofuel benefits.

    Political disturbances abroad, and their effects on oil prices, have made Americans wary of their current dependence on foreign oil. Biofuels have therefore gained much attention in the USA in recent years, mainly because they are perceived as a means of achieving energy independence through the production of locally renewable fuel.

    Furthermore, biofuels have been touted as a “green energy” alternative that can mitigate climate change as well as reduce the risk of environmental disasters associated with fossil fuel production (such as recent oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico).

    These issues, combined with the complex political reality within the USA, have brought biofuels to the forefront of the American national energy policy debate. It is estimated that as much as 40 per cent of the total current maize (corn) production in the USA is used to produce corn ethanol to fuel cars.

    According to Dr. Hill, however, the research and the policies that promote bioethanol have some problems. This is due partly to the misuse of the results of past life-cycle assessments, and partly to the lack of current studies using appropriate life-cycle assessment methodologies.

    The US Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 stipulates targets for renewable fuel production by 2022, but these targets only consider greenhouse gas reduction. While some research may indicate that corn ethanol emits lower levels of greenhouse gases than gasoline, this is very much dependent on the conversion technology used during the production and use of bioethanol. In addition, life-cycle assessments focusing on greenhouse gas emissions of biofuels sometimes fail to account for the full set of impacts from production to combustion.

    In his presentation, Dr. Hill argued that if the entire life cycles of gasoline and ethanol are to be compared properly, then the direct and indirect land use change associated with biofuel expansion must be factored in the life-cycle assessments. In fact, depending on the location and the previous land use regime, he said, it could take decades — or even centuries — before the carbon debt from ethanol production can be repaid.

    Furthermore, by focusing solely on the projected reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, US biofuel policies disregard other important impacts on human health and ecosystems. Current biofuel policies, for example, fail to consider the human health costs associated with biofuels’ detrimental impact on air quality (particularly from particulate matter).

    To close his presentation, Dr. Hill identified areas in which his research could collaborate with the work that UNU-IAS carries out in ecosystem services and biodiversity.

    Dr. Hill is contributing to a forthcoming book, tentatively titled Biofuels in Developing Nations: Socioeconomic and Environmental Impacts, that is being edited by Dr. Stromberg and Dr. Alexandros Gasparatos, a JSPS-UNU Postdoctoral Fellow.