Farmer Perspective: Improving Greenhouse Gas Emissions through Biofuels

Farmer Perspective Policy & Business

Guest post by Rick Tolman, the former CEO of the National Corn Growers Association. Rick served in that role for 14 years, from 2000 to 2014.


Did you know? When it comes to greenhouse gas emissions, current research is showing that biofuels rock. One of the best tools for the early ethanol detractors was the claim that ethanol production was bad for the environment, citing net energy balance, greenhouse gas emissions and so forth, but recent studies are proving those myths wrong.

ethanol plant biofuels corn

In 2010, the EPA projected that corn ethanol would emit 75 grams of CO2 per megajoule by 2022.1 This was not a very favorable projection, and may have damaged the environmental reputation of ethanol. But recent studies by the Department of Energy and the USDA have turned the EPA projection on its head, showing that the carbon emissions of corn ethanol are already far lower than that estimate for 2020.

A report released in January of last year2, showed that in 2014 the life cycle of greenhouse gas emissions for corn ethanol were already 43 percent below 2005 gasoline and 30 percent below the EPA 2020 estimation. The report also estimated that corn ethanol’s carbon intensity would be a whopping 70 percent below the EPA estimate by 2020.


Consider just a few example statistics3 noting improvements in the efficiency of inputs to corn production:

  • Corn farming energy use: 1990 – 18,048 grams/bushel; 2020 estimate – 6,588 grams/bushel
  • Nitrogen use: 1990 – 608 grams per bushel; 2015 – 383 grams/bushel
  • Herbicide use – 1990 – 8 grams per bushel; 2015 – 6 grams per bushel
  • Pesticide use: 1990 — 0.06 grams per bushel; 2015 — 0.01 grams per bushel

And how about this stat on the products and byproducts of ethanol production—both food and feed:

Today one bushel of corn can produce 2.8 gallons of ethanol as well as 19.5 lbs. of dried distillers’ grains. In 1977, U.S. corn farmers produced an average of 90.8 bushels per acre. This year, the average yield on that same acre is projected to be 178.4, or nearly double what it was then.

Recent and updated studies are finally giving corn and ethanol production their due. Far from being the environmental nightmares that some have portrayed, they are indeed the rock stars of efficiency and improvement, and one of the best tools that we have for addressing greenhouse gas emissions.

The views expressed in this article are the author's alone and not those of Farmer's Business Network, Inc., its affiliates or members. 


Sources:

1. https://ethanol.org/GHG%20chart.pdf
2. https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2017/01/12/usda-releases-new-report-lifecycle-greenhouse-gas-balance-ethanol
3. http://bluetoad.com/publication/?i=519490&p=&pn=#{%22issue_id%22:519490,%22page%22:0

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