Land-use change and greenhouse gas emissions from corn and cellulosic ethanol

July 16, 2013

The greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that may accompany land-use change (LUC) from increased biofuel feedstock production are a source of debate in the discussion of drawbacks and advantages of biofuels. Estimates of LUC GHG emissions focus mainly on corn ethanol and vary widely. Increasing the understanding of LUC GHG impacts associated with both corn and cellulosic ethanol will inform the on-going debate concerning their magnitudes and sources of variability.

In our study, we estimate LUC GHG emissions for ethanol from four feedstocks: corn, corn stover, switchgrass, and miscanthus. We use new computable general equilibrium (CGE) results for worldwide LUC. U.S. domestic carbon emission factors are from state-level modelling with a surrogate CENTURY model and U.S. Forest Service data. This paper investigates the effect of several key domestic lands carbon content modelling parameters on LUC GHG emissions. International carbon emission factors are from the Woods Hole Research Center. LUC GHG emissions are calculated from these LUCs and carbon content data with Argonne National Laboratory’s Carbon Calculator for Land Use Change from Biofuels Production (CCLUB) model. Our results indicate that miscanthus and corn ethanol have the lowest (−10 g CO2e/MJ) and highest (7.6 g CO2e/MJ) LUC GHG emissions under base case modelling assumptions. The results for corn ethanol are lower than corresponding results from previous studies. Switchgrass ethanol base case results (2.8 g CO2e/MJ) were the most influenced by assumptions regarding converted forestlands and the fate of carbon in harvested wood products. They are greater than miscanthus LUC GHG emissions because switchgrass is a lower-yielding crop. Finally, LUC GHG emissions for corn stover are essentially negligible and insensitive to changes in model assumptions.

This research provides new insight into the influence of key carbon content modeling variables on LUC GHG emissions associated with the four bioethanol pathways we examined. Our results indicate that LUC GHG emissions may have a smaller contribution to the overall biofuel life cycle than previously thought. Additionally, they highlight the need for future advances in LUC GHG emissions estimation including improvements to CGE models and aboveground and belowground carbon content data.

J. Dunn, S. Mueller, H. Kwon, and M. Wang (ES). Biotechnology for Biofuels 2013, 6:51, doi:10.1186/1754-6834-6-51