That biofuels can contribute to a cleaner global energy mix is widely accepted, but the net benefits of bioenergy in terms of mitigating greenhouse gases (GHG) are moot. Some argue, for example, that biofuels are not sustainable because the conversion of non-agricultural land to grow energy crops could lead to a significant initial decrease in carbon storage, creating what is known as a "biofuel carbon debt".Click here to see more...
A study by a cross-border group of researchers published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) could help refute this argument.
The study showed that the GHG mitigation potential of switchgrass cultivation for cellulosic ethanol production in the US was comparable on a per-hectare basis to that of reforestation and several times greater than that of grassland restoration. Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) is a widely grown North American native grass proposed as biomass for the biobased economy.
More advanced technology and integration of carbon capture and storage (CCS) could further increase the per-hectare mitigation potential of bioenergy systems by a factor of six, according to the study, which was supported by São Paulo Research Foundation - FAPESP via a project led by John J. Sheehan.
Sheehan is affiliated with the University of Minnesota in the US and is currently a visiting fellow at the University of Campinas's School of Agricultural Engineering (FEAGRI-UNICAMP) in the state of São Paulo, Brazil, under the aegis of the (São Paulo Excellence Chair (SPEC).
Co-lead author of the study, Lee R. Lynd, a professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire (USA), began a project in February at UNICAMP's Center for Molecular Biology and Genetic Engineering (CBMEG), with funding from FAPESP under the SPEC program.
"The study highlights in detail the factors and strategies that are important to the implementation of biofuel production in a way that helps stabilize the climate," Lynd told.
According to the authors, critics of bioenergy question whether feedstock crops can be sustainably sourced without causing self-defeating reductions in ecosystem carbon storage.
Besides the "carbon debt" resulting from the conversion of non-agricultural land into energy crop plantations, the use of existing productive agricultural land with low carbon stocks can also be counterproductive if food production is displaced and GHG emissions increase elsewhere.
This effect, known as indirect land-use change, can be minimized or avoided by growing biofuel feedstocks on low-yield or abandoned cropland, or land spared from continued agricultural use through future agricultural intensification or changes in diet.
Reforestation offers an alternative use of such land for GHG mitigation. However, it is often claimed that assessment of bioenergy production in these areas should consider their "opportunity cost", i.e. the carbon sequestration foregone when land is used for feedstock production instead of reforestation.
"The main studies published to date suggest zero net land-use change, but indirect land-use change continues to be invoked as a key criticism of biofuels," Lynd said.
These arguments were initially directed at first-generation biofuels - obtained from sugar, starch or vegetable oil in food crops grown on farmland - but questions focusing on carbon debt, indirect land-use change, and opportunity cost have since been raised regarding the production of cellulosic biomass for use in advanced biofuel production or electricity generation.
Based on these and other arguments, recent studies suggest that using land to produce bioenergy feedstocks has a less-than-ideal impact in terms of mitigating the climate crisis, and recommend research and policy be refocused toward land-based biological carbon management.
However, those studies are often based on secondary estimates of bioenergy system performance and mitigation opportunity costs. Furthermore, they generally exclude consideration of CCS or future technology improvements, the authors note.
"Each of the critiques we discuss in the study has some legitimacy in terms of pointing to factors that can cancel out the beneficial impact of biofuels on the climate, but they shouldn't be taken as proof that biofuels can't or don't have any beneficial impact at all," Lynd said.
To refute the arguments presented by critics of biofuel sustainability, the researchers used ecosystem simulation combined with models of cellulosic biofuel production and CCS, estimating the potential of biofuel from energy grass to replace fossil fuels and sequester carbon directly compared with other land-based mitigation schemes, such as reforestation and grassland restoration.