Source: Biotechnology Industry Organization

A newly published study shows that effective land management practices can reduce to near zero the so-called carbon debt attributed to biofuels. Greenhouse gas emissions associated with growing agricultural feedstocks for biofuels can be greatly reduced using available crop management techniques, such as no-till agriculture, according to the new study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology by Bruce Dale and Seungdo Kim of Michigan State University and Hyungtae Kim of Phillips Academy Andover.

Brent Erickson, executive vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization's (BIO) Industrial & Environmental Section, noted that the study is relevant to the continuing debate on the life cycle assessment of biofuels to be included in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's rules for the Renewable Fuel Standard.

"Increased domestic biofuel production and use can reduce America's reliance on oil, which is the key to cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector. This new study makes an important contribution to our understanding of how to produce these renewable biofuels more sustainably. It also provides a counterpoint to previously published scenarios of international land use change that greatly overestimate greenhouse gas emissions.

"Measuring greenhouse gas emissions from biofuel production and international land use change has received a great deal of attention, but the science is still in its infancy and still contains many uncertainties, making the EPA's task of regulatory analysis difficult. This study shows that applying best practices in biofuel production and agriculture can dramatically improve the outcome of life cycle analysis for biofuels. Available crop management practices, such as no-till agriculture, which is already in widespread use, can significantly reduce the greenhouse gas emissions attributed to biofuels."

The study, titled "Biofuels, Land Use Change, and Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Some Unexplored Variables," was published Jan. 6 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. The conclusions put forth in the study include:

  • Existing land use change studies have not considered important variables that can improve the greenhouse gas emissions of biofuels. Cropping management following land use change is a key factor in determining greenhouse gas emissions associated with land use change.
  • No-till agriculture can reduce the carbon debt associated with converting grassland and temperate zone forests to crop production to 4 and 20 years, respectively.
  • No-till with cover crop agriculture can create a carbon sink, resulting in higher soil organic carbon levels than those in unmanaged forests and grasslands.

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