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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

Title: Sustainable Biofuels Redux)

Author
item Robertson, G
item Dale, Virginia
item Doering, Otto
item Hamburg, Steven
item Melillo, Jerry
item Wander, Michele
item Parton, William
item Pouyat, Richard
item Adler, Paul
item Barney, Jacob
item Cruse, Richard
item Duke, Clifford
item Fearnside, Philip
item Follett, Ronald - Ron
item Gibbs, Holly
item Goldemberg, Jose
item Mladenoff, David
item Ojima, Dennis
item Palmer, Michael
item Sharpley, Andrew
item Wallace, Linda
item Weathers, Kathleen
item Wiens, John
item Wilhelm, Wallace

Submitted to: Science Magazine
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 7/1/2008
Publication Date: 10/1/2008
Citation: Robertson, G.P., Dale, V., Doering, O., Hamburg, S., Melillo, J.M., Wander, M., Parton, W., Pouyat, R., Adler, P.R., Barney, J., Cruse, R., Duke, C., Fearnside, P., Follett, R.F., Gibbs, H., Goldemberg, J., Mladenoff, D., Ojima, D., Palmer, M., Sharpley, A., Wallace, L., Weathers, K., Wiens, J.A., Wilhelm, W.W. 2008. Sustainable Biofuels Redux. Science Magazine. Vol. 322:49-50.

Interpretive Summary: Biofuel sustainability has environmental, economic, and social facets that all interconnect. Tradeoffs among them vary widely by types of fuels and where they are grown, and thus need to be explicitly considered using a framework that allows the outcomes of alternative systems to be consistently evaluated and compared. A cellulosic biofuels industry could have many positive social and environmental attributes, but it could also suffer from many of the sustainability issues that hobble grain-based biofuels if not done right. While many questions about biofuel sustainability remain unanswered – indeed, some remain unasked – what we now know with reasonable certainty can be readily summarized. First, we know that grain-based biofuel systems are environmentally challenged. In addition to questions of carbon debt created by land cleared elsewhere to replace displaced food production (1, 2), farming our existing landscapes more intensively, with even greater quantities of biomass extracted, can easily exacerbate existing environmental harm. Effects of intense agriculture are well-documented: increased soil erosion, greater nitrate and phosphorus loss, and a decline in biodiversity, with concomitant impacts on ground and surface water quality, air quality, and biodiversity-based services such as pest suppression and wildlife amenities. Business as usual writ larger is not an environmentally welcome solution.

Technical Abstract: Biofuel sustainability has environmental, economic, and social facets that all interconnect. Tradeoffs among them vary widely by types of fuels and where they are grown, and thus need to be explicitly considered using a framework that allows the outcomes of alternative systems to be consistently evaluated and compared. A cellulosic biofuels industry could have many positive social and environmental attributes, but it could also suffer from many of the sustainability issues that hobble grain-based biofuels if not done right. While many questions about biofuel sustainability remain unanswered – indeed, some remain unasked – what we now know with reasonable certainty can be readily summarized. First, we know that grain-based biofuel systems are environmentally challenged. In addition to questions of carbon debt created by land cleared elsewhere to replace displaced food production (1, 2), farming our existing landscapes more intensively, with even greater quantities of biomass extracted, can easily exacerbate existing environmental harm. Effects of intense agriculture are well-documented: increased soil erosion, greater nitrate and phosphorus loss, and a decline in biodiversity, with concomitant impacts on ground and surface water quality, air quality, and biodiversity-based services such as pest suppression and wildlife amenities. Business as usual writ larger is not an environmentally welcome solution.

Last Modified: 8/24/2016
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