Develop Good Biofuels: The Journal Science Tells Us Why

Two new studies in the journal Science are a welcome addition to the growing debate over the diverse kinds of alternative sources of energy our planet needs to produce to combat the ever-rising threat of global warming. Above all, the two studies published yesterday show that the United States must ensure that transitioning to a low-carbon economy involves only those steps that truly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. The United States must take a leadership role in developing a diverse range of alternative and renewable sources of energy to swiftly create a global low-carbon economy.

The two Science studies criticize the use of biofuels, particularly corn-based ethanol, as causing more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels. The studies also note that clearing natural habitats to grow crops for biofuels generally leads to more carbon emissions, and that clearing large areas of land in general can lead to food and water shortages and reduced biodiversity.

These findings point to the urgent need for national and international certification standards for biofuels. Such standards must be part of effective policy for producing biofuels as a means to diversify our transportation fuels. Biofuels that are part of the solution include cellulosic ethanol–which is less energy-intensive and made from agricultural plant waste–or dedicated crops such as switchgrass or algae. Another key source of biofuel with low lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions is municipal waste, which is largely untapped today.

In our recent report Capturing the Energy Opportunity: Creating a Low-Carbon Economy, the Center for American Progress argues that our nation’s dependence on carbon-based fossil fuels requires a dramatic increase in the production and use of alternative low-carbon fuels, including E85 produced from cellulosic feedstocks, and electricity. Specifically, we propose two measures to ensure that alternative fuels, including biofuels, generate fewer greenhouse gas emissions over their lifecycle of production to consumption and are sustainably produced. One measure is a low-carbon fuel standard to reduce lifecycle emissions from transportation fuels by 10 percent by 2020; the other is a renewable fuels certification program with transparent sustainability labeling.

Articles such as those in Science can help us design the most effective standards to promote only those fuels with the lowest emissions and the greatest sustainability.

Overall, CAP proposes that alternative low-carbon fuels (including electricity) supply 25 percent of our nations transportation fuels by 2025. But more immediately, other measures are necessary today, including investment in low-carbon electricity, transportation, and building infrastructure, increases in vehicle fuel economy, shifting to renewable sources of electricity, investing in efficiency, and employing an economy-wide cap-and-trade program to put a mandatory cap on carbon emissions and create a market to trade these carbon credits.

This series of policies will raise revenue to diversify our sources of energy and help low- and middle-income families cope with rising energy prices. Eliminating federal tax breaks and subsidies for oil and gas companies will also help fund this energy transformation.

Biofuels and other types of bio-based energy will not solve all of the world’s energy challenges. We also need an array of energy sources from the sun, wind, and other renewable technologies. Nonetheless, with the right standards, biofuels can play a direct role in diversifying our energy sources and contributing to economic growth and development, particularly in rural communities in the United States and the rest of the developed and developing world.

Case in point: In 2005, the Renewable Fuels Association reported that the ethanol industry created over 150,000 jobs in the United States, increasing household income by $5.7 billion and contributing about $3.5 billion in tax revenues at the local, state, and federal levels.

In the Energy Independence and Security Act passed in December, many members of Congress wanted to include tax incentives for cellulosic biofuels and other low-carbon sources of energy, but President Bush refused to support this clean energy tax package because it would have included closing $1 billion in tax break loopholes for Big Oil, even though big oil profits reached $120 billion this past year. Continuing with conventional fossil fuel use will most certainly continue to pump large quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and cause further environmental damage.

That’s why sustainably produced biofuels with low lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions should be part of a new diverse array of clean energy sources, which would not only help to reduce emissions but would power a new low-carbon economy.

To read more about the Center’s policies on biofuels and diversifying energy sources, please see: