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2009 August 14

US scholars reach consensus on benefits of biofuels

David Landes
Eleven scholars from several respected US universities have concluded that biofuels can be produced in large quantities, but only if they come from feedstocks with low emissions of greenhouse gases throughout their life cycles.

“The world needs to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy, but recent findings have thrown the emerging biofuels industry into a quandary. We met to seek solutions,” said University of Minnesota ecologist and lead author David Tilman in a statement.

“We found that the next generation of biofuels can be highly beneficial if produced properly.”

The article, co-authored by researchers from the University of Minnesota, Princeton, MIT and the University of California, Berkeley, is entitled “Beneficial Biofuels—The Food, Energy and Environment Trilemma” and was published in the July 17th issue of Science magazine.

At the crux of the article is an examination of so called land-use issues and whether or not greenhouse gases released when land is cleared to grow biofuel crops exceed those generated by petroleum use.

“Careful scientific reasoning revealed accounting rules that separate promising from self-defeating strategies,” said Princeton’s Robert Socolow in a statement.

“Future carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere will tell us when we’re kidding ourselves about what actually works. For carbon management, the atmosphere is the ultimate accountant.”

According to the authors, the global biofuels industry must focus on five major sources of renewable biomass, including perennial plants grown on abandoned agricultural lands; crop residues; sustainably harvested wood and forest residues; mixed cropping systems; and municipal and industrial wastes.

“We need to transition away from using food for biofuels toward more sustainable feedstocks that can be produced with much less impact on the environment,” said the University of Minnesota scholar and co-author Jason Hill.

Read the full press release here.

A free summary of the journal article can be found here.