Transportation-related activities contribute about 25% of all greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere, and biofuels could reduce that number. But currently the market share for biofuels in transportation is a paltry 3% of global demand and only a few countries—the U.S., Brazil, China, Canada, and France–produce and consume a significant amount.
That could soon change, according to the proposed climate action plans each country have brought to the Paris climate talks: Increased use of renewable fuels is a component of thirty-six countries’ plans, also known as Intended Nationally Determined Contributions or INDCs.
But the world’s leader in biofuel production, the U.S., was not one of them. This fact infuriates the Renewable Fuels Association, the leading trade association devoted to advancing ethanol as a clean, renewable fuel in the U.S. In the words of Bob Dinneen, the association’s president and CEO, “Inexplicably, the United States’ initial submission to [the Paris talks] completely ignores past greenhouse gas reduction and the future promise of even greater reductions as the Renewable Fuel Standard drives further improvements in biofuels technologies.” President Obama also did not mention renewable biofuels in his opening remarks at the meeting.
Perhaps President Obama and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are going slower on biofuels now because corn-based ethanol—the current biofuel of choice in the U.S.–has large costs as well as benefits. For many years, the industry required billions of dollars in tax credits (subsidies.) Corn requires the greatest inputs of fertilizers and pesticides of any crop and results in more runoff of nutrients and soil than other feedstocks. It also requires a lot of water. Still, EPA has continued to increase renewable fuel use in the U.S. above historical levels and provided steady growth, but it is slowing the rate of growth due to infrastructure limitations and the slow development of the next generation of biofuels.
In Paris, industry interests are pushing for biofuels’ market share to climb well above the current 3%. The World Business Council for Sustainable Development is campaigning for the market share for biofuels to be 10% or higher. And last week, a collective of five biofuel and biotech organizations which represent over 330 companies responsible for 90% of the world’s biofuels production called upon nations to commit to replacing at least 15% of their transportation fuels with sustainable biofuels by 2030.
But questions remain about biofuels’ effect on emissions. Just yesterday, the Global Renewable Fuels Alliance released a new report, “Green House Gas (GHG) Emission Reductions from World Biofuel Production and Use for 2015” which estimates that the contribution of biofuels to global emission reductions for 2014 was 169 million tonnes CO2 equivalent.
If that estimate is correct, biofuels’ emission savings in 2014 represented only 0.4% of total global emissions. Still, renewable biofuels are a step in the right direction provided other measures of performance—for example, water use–are acceptable. The next generations of biofuels–cellulosic ethanol, drop-in biodiesel, and algae biodiesel–hold the promise of higher performance while reducing greenhouse gas emissions further.
Jerald Schnoor is attending the Paris meeting on assignment for Chemical & Engineering News. He is professor and co-director of the Center for Global & Regional Environmental Research at the University of Iowa, and former editor-in-chief of Environmental Science & Technology. Follow him on Twitter @JerryatCOP21.