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Plants at the Pump

Reviewing Biofuels' Impacts and Policy Recommendations

This article summarizes and updates the conclusions of the [Plants at the Pump](node/9241) report, released in December 2007.

Executive Summary

As biofuels become a larger part of the social, economic, and environmental strategies of countries around the world, standards and regulations are needed to ensure that biofuels do in fact reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and promote sustainable development.

In a world of rapidly rising GHG emissions and growing unease about imported oil, the appeal of renewable fuels is growing apace. Biofuels — liquids produced from plant matter that can substitute for gasoline or diesel fuel---have become a hot topic from Capitol Hill to Silicon Valley. Despite their promise, however, recent research suggests that most of today’s biofuels increase GHG emissions compared to gasoline or diesel fuel. These increases in greenhouse gas emissions primarily result from land-use changes associated with growing crops for biofuels. The scale-up of biofuels to meet market demands for alternative fuels should therefore be examined further for its impacts on greenhouse gas emissions.

Greenhouse gas emissions concerns, coupled with rising global food prices, have called into question biofuels policies, and some of the “silver bullet” sheen has begun to wear off. Policy makers should understand that the term “biofuels” covers a range of products with varying potentials to achieve energy, climate, transportation, or agricultural policy aims. A key policy question, then, is how to ensure that biofuels do not cause greater harm than good. Policy makers should:

  • Use technology-neutral policies, as opposed to technology-specific policies such as biofuel subsidies, to drive fuel choices in relation to desired policy goals (e.g., greenhouse gas reductions, energy security, and other social and environmental priorities).
  • Design methodologies for calculating the sustainability benefits of fuel options and incorporate these calculations into energy, climate, agricultural, land use, and trade policy.
  • Design certification programs to avoid "exporting" negative impacts of biofuels production to other producing countries where regulation is not yet in place.
  • Recognize that biofuels alone will not provide low-carbon transportation solutions needed to address climate change. Policy support for other mobility options, such as increased efficiency in the immediate term, or electricity for vehicle propulsion accompanied by an aggressive rise in zero-carbon power generation, should be explored. Addressing emissions from transport will ultimately require rethinking how cities are designed and must include an aggressive push toward improved public transportation.

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