Study Shows Flawed Experiments used to Support Policies for “Low-Carbon” Biofuels

by Niti Nagar

According to John DeCicco, researcher at University of Michigan’s Energy Institute, nearly all of the studies used to promote biofuels as climate-friendly alternatives to petroleum fuels are flawed and need to be redone. After reviewing more than 100 papers published over the span of more than two decades, DeCicco claims erroneous methodology has led to the false assumption that biofuels will limit emissions of carbon dioxide. Existing studies fail to correctly account for the carbon dioxide absorbed from the atmosphere when corn, soybeans and sugarcane are grown to make biofuels said DeCicco. He explains, “Almost all of the fields used to produce biofuels were already being used to produce crops for food, so there is no significant increase in the amount of carbon dioxide being removed from the atmosphere. Therefore, there’s no climate benefit.”

In his paper, DeCicco focuses on the carbon footprint model to evaluate the impacts of petroleum-based fuels and plant-based biofuels. Computing the total carbon footprint as a way to evaluate the total emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases associated with the production and use of transportation fuels was a type of analysis introduced in the late 1980s. Since then, the results of many fuel-related carbon footprint analyses have led to widespread disagreement. Yet, despite these controversial methods, they were still advocated by environmental groups and were subsequently used by Congress as part of the 2007 federal energy bill’s provisions to promote biofuels, which resulted in the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard and eventually California’s Low-Carbon Fuel Standard.

In his analysis, DeCicco shows that existing carbon footprint analyses fail to properly reflect the dynamics of the carbon cycle by miscounting carbon dioxide uptake during plant growth. He emphasized that this process occurs on all productive lands, whether or not the land is harvested for biofuel, and concludes these modeling errors help explain the controversial results. Disagreements have been especially apparent when comparing biofuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, to conventional petroleum-derived fuels such as gasoline and diesel.

DeCicco believes research should be focused on ways of removing carbon dioxide at faster rates and larger scales to increase net carbon dioxide uptake and effectively counterbalance emissions from the combustion of gasoline and other liquid fuels.

John M. DeCicco. The liquid carbon challenge: evolving views on transportation fuels and climate. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Energy and Environment, 2015; 4 (1): 98 DOI: 10.1002/wene.133

University of Michigan. “Closer look at flawed studies behind policies used to promote ‘low-carbon’ biofuels.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 February 2015. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/02/150205122737.htm>.

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