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Biofuels for transportation: A climate perspective

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N. Peña
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This paper offers an introduction to the current state of play for biofuels: the technologies used in their production, their GHG emissions, and associated policy issues. The amount of emission reductions that can be achieved through the use of biofuels varies widely, depending on choices made at each step from feedstock selection and production through final fuel use. Technologies exist today to produce a wide variety of biofuels from a wide range of feedstocks. However, currently commercial options are limited to ethanol made from cornstarch or sugarcane, and biodiesel made from soybean or palm oil seeds. Current research and development focuses on lowering biofuel costs, GHG emissions, and land and water resource needs, and on improving compatibility with fuel distribution systems and vehicle engines. Policy priorities should be aligned with these R&D objectives as well as with other policies addressing climate, agriculture, forestlands and international trade. It is argued that Biofuels have the potential to satisfy a portion of U.S. on-road fuel needs, assist in addressing climate change, augment and diversify rural income, and enhance energy security. However, reaching this potential at a meaningful scale will require significant investment both in biofuels and passenger vehicles. It is asserted that a new generation of biofuels is needed—with significantly lower GHG profiles and costs, made from feedstocks that put less pressure on agricultural and recreational lands, potable water supplies, and habitat. Wide deployment of passenger vehicles able to go substantially further for each unit of energy in the fuel is also essential. Policy makers will need to balance competing interests, including:

users of transportation fuels versus producers of feedstocks and biofuel manufacturers
agricultural producers versus consumers of agricultural products
biofuels versus other transportation fuel options
use of lands for biofuels versus use of land for other purposes

The author argues that policymakers will also need to assess interactions between biofuel policies, the wide array of existing policies that affect land use—particularly crop supports and trade policies—and land-use components of climate agreements. To the extent that biofuel policies are intended to contribute to the achievement of climate change goals, support for biofuels should be linked to their GHG profiles. Development of methodologies acceptable to a large range of stakeholders will be a critical step in enabling and implementing any such policies.