Biofuels and the need for additional carbon


Use of biofuels does not reduce emissions from energy combustion but may offset emissions by increasing plant growth or by reducing plant residue or other non-energy emissions. To do so, biofuel production must generate and use ‘additional carbon’, which means carbon that plants would not otherwise absorb or that would be emitted to the atmosphere anyway. When biofuels cause no direct land use change, they use crops that would grow regardless of biofuels so they do not directly absorb additional carbon. All potential greenhouse gas reductions from such biofuels, as well as many potential emission increases, result from indirect effects, including reduced crop consumption, price-induced yield gains and land conversion.

If lifecycle analyses ignore indirect effects of biofuels, they therefore cannot properly find greenhouse gas reductions. Uncertainties in estimating indirect emission reductions and increases are largely symmetrical. The failure to distinguish ‘additional’ carbon from carbon already absorbed or withheld from the atmosphere also leads to large overestimates of global bioenergy potential. Reasonable confidence in greenhouse gas reductions requires a precautionary approach to estimating indirect effects that does not rely on any single model. Reductions can be more directly assured, and other adverse indirect effects avoided, by focusing on biofuels from directly additional carbon.