Canadian Consulting Engineer

Biofuels’ environmental value undermined by research

August 30, 2016

Researchers at the University of Michigan have reported startling evidence to show that biofuels are not as environmentally benign as is thought.

A study by professor John DeCicco and co-authors at the U-M Energy Institute took  U.S. Department of Agriculture crop-production data and found that during the period when U.S. biofuel production rapidly ramped up, the increased carbon dioxide uptake by the crops was only enough to offset 37% of the CO2 emissions due to biofuel combustion.

The researchers conclude that rising biofuel use has been associated with a net increase — rather than a net decrease, as many have claimed — in the carbon dioxide emissions that cause global warming. The findings were published online Aug. 25 in the journal Climatic Change.

(The announcement includes a note that some of the funding for the research was from the American Petroleum Institute.)


The consumption of liquid biofuels—mainly corn ethanol and biodiesel—as an alternative to petroleum has grown in the U.S. from 4.2 billion gallons in 2005 to 14.6 billion gallons in 2013. The environmental justification for the use of biofuels rests on the assumption that they are inherently carbon neutral because the carbon dioxide released when they are burned was derived from CO2 that the growing corn or soybean plants pulled from the atmosphere through photosynthesis.

Instead of modeling the emissions, DeCicco and his colleagues analyzed real-world data on crop production, biofuel production, fossil fuel production and vehicle emissions.

DeCicco said: “Policymakers should reconsider their support for biofuels. This issue has been debated for many years. What’s new here is that hard data, straight from America’s croplands, now confirm the worst fears about the harm that biofuels do to the planet.”

The paper is entitled, “Carbon balance effects of U.S. biofuel production and use.”

To read the University of Michigan press release of August 25, click here.

To read a recent article about biofuel production plants being built across Canada in Canadian Consulting Engineer, click here.



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