Life-Cycle of Analyses of Biofuel Production


Legislative proposals base renewable fuel mandates and other fuel policies on the greenhouse gas profile of specific fuels; it is therefore imperative that life cycle analyses for the production and use of biofuels are comprehensive and accurate. Full life cycle analyses will provide the underlying technical foundation for policy options, particularly when the life-cycle emissions are compared to the life-cycle emissions from conventional fossil fuels.


Establish under the CGC a coordinated effort to conduct research and analysis toward improvement upon current life-cycle analyses that address the full scope of greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impacts related to biofuel production.

Research Topics:

  1. Greenhouse gas evaluation of biofuels on a life-cycle basis, including emissions associated with biofuel production.
  2. Expand life-cycle analyses to address a full range of potential environmental impacts from biofuels production.
    • Compare the impacts of various biofuels in terms of their relative impacts on soil quality, water use, water quality (including such critical issues as nitrogen and pesticide run-off), air quality, and protection of native ecosystems, habitats and biodiversity.
    • Analyze the aggregate and cumulative environmental impacts related to the growth of the entire biofuels sector, both domestically and internationally.
  3. Quantify the full range of land-use impacts of biofuel production and use, to include:
    • GHG impacts of shifting marginal, unused or ecologically sensitive land into biofuels production, analyzing the scale of land use conversion for biofuels production, the types of land being converted, and the land intensity of various biofuel feedstocks.
    • Careful analysis of the greenhouse gas impacts of land use conversion for various biofuel feedstocks in different areas of the world, e.g. SE Asia, South America and the U.S.
  4. Research and analysis on environmental impacts and the development of comprehensive life-cycle analyses for feedstocks other than corn - including soy, sugarcane, palm oil, canola, native grasses, various wood sources, straight vegetable oil (including waste vegetable oil), and crop residues. Using geographically-specific data, investigate variability across regions of the United States and the world relative to impacts and potential GHG mitigation potential.
  5. Research into best practices for:
    • Cultivation and harvesting of feedstocks, to include adoption of precision agriculture; breeding and advanced genetic techniques; harvest timing and quantities; crop rotations; pesticide and fertilizer requirements; impacts of crop residue utilization; tillage practice; and feedstock processing and handling methods for woody biomass and perennial grasses. The research agenda for best practices should also prominently include issues involving crop diversification and appropriate mixes (including cultivation techniques for mixed perennial crops).
    • Sustainable practices for biofuel processing facilities, particularly for energy and water use. Research on the most effective ways to use biomass for powering biofuel processing facilities could be particularly important to creating greenhouse gas and air quality benefits. In addition, research on minimizing water use by ethanol processing plants, which currently use more than 4 gallons of water to every gallon of ethanol produced, will be critical to limiting the potentially intense pressure that biofuels production could place on water resources.

Rob Jackson (Biology/Nicholas School, Duke University)
Gaby Katul (Nicholas School, Duke University)
Brian Murray (Nicholas Institute, Duke University)

©2008 Center on Global Change
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