Research reduces biofuels carbon footprint

By Susanne Retka Schill | January 15, 2009
Web exclusive posted Jan. 26, 2009, at 10:45 a.m. CST

Warnings about biofuels contribution to greenhouse gas (GHG) production are based on a set of assumptions that may not be correct, according to a paper recently published by researchers at Michigan State University. "Biofuels, Land Use Change, and Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Some Unexplored Variables" by Hyungtae Kim, Seungdo Kim and Bruce Dale, was published online by the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

"Greenhouse gas release from changes in land use -- growing crops that could be used for biofuels on previously unfarmed land -- has been identified as a negative contributor to the environmental profile of biofuels," said Dale, a distinguished professor of chemical engineering and materials science at MSU and associate director of the Office of Biobased Technologies. "Other analyses have estimated that it would take from 100 to 1,000 years before biofuels could overcome this 'carbon debt' and start providing greenhouse gas benefits."

Crop management is a key factor in estimating GHG emissions associated with land use change attributed to biofuels, Dale said. The MSU analysis shows sustainable management practices such as no-till farming and planting cover crops can reduce the time it takes for biofuels to overcome the carbon debt to three years for grassland conversion and 14 years for temperate zone forest conversion.

The discrepancy in the analyses is due to the models used, he said. "There are no real data on what actually happens," he pointed out. In theory, as land demand increases for biofuel production in one part of the world, it leads to land clearing elsewhere. "It is impossible to track these relationships in the real world," Dale said. "All the estimates are based on economic relationships and theoretical models with various data and assumptions. It's really one set of assumptions versus another set. The other scientists believe their assumptions are more reasonable and we believe ours are more reasonable."

According to Dale, how land is managed after it's converted to cropland is very important. "The authors of the Science paper assumed the worst-case scenario plow tillage which we don't think is accurate. The actual use of sustainable management practices no till, reduced till and other approaches is more than 50 percent and increasing." The article Dale referenced appeared a year ago, setting off a storm of coverage bashing biofuels.

Ethanol Producer Magazine will further discuss the issue of indirect land use in the March issue, in a feature titled "Tackling Indirect Land Use."
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