Report Offers Environmental Rating System for Biofuels
As the market for ethanol booms, there is growing concern that not all biofuels are created equal when it comes to environmental performance. In fact, whether the impact is positive or negative can vary greatly depending on how the fuel is made. To help investors, policymakers and consumers understand the differences, a new report commissioned by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and released by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, offers a comprehensive ratings system for assessing whether a biofuel is truly green.
Guidelines in the report, “Creating Markets for Green Biofuels: Measuring and Improving Environmental Performance,” could help stem potential backlash against the ethanol industry’s explosive growth.
On the line is whether the biofuels technologies that emerge actually meet environmental and energy security needs. The system is intended to help producers, consumers, and government officials make sure that biofuels are doing more good than harm.
On average a gallon of ethanol produced by the corn-based industry in the U.S. today reduces global warming pollution by 18 percent for every gallon of gasoline displaced. And newer technologies will allow for ethanol production that cuts emissions by more than 80 percent. On the other end of the spectrum are inefficient, environmentally unfriendly production practices, such as cutting down rainforests for biomass or burning coal to power ethanol plants, that could potentially increase global warming pollution.
In recent months, 23 bills have been introduced on Capitol Hill that all need some way to measure environmental performance of biofuels. However, there is no evaluation process to ensure that increased ethanol production will actually reduce global warming pollution.
According to Nathanael Greene, senior energy analyst at NRDC, Congress and state governments must start paying attention to how biofuels are made so that technologies and practices will produce more biofuels out of every acre with less environmental impact. Without standards that guide the market toward the environmental improvements, he says, the market will get whatever is quickest and dirtiest.
The report identifies global warming pollution as a key environmental impact that must be measured to identify “green” biofuels, and also identifies the key impacts associated with land, water, and air. The report discusses the opportunities and challenges involved in measuring each impact for each batch of biofuels produced and proposes three different models for combining these measures into a green biofuels index. Finally, the report makes recommendations on how such an index could be used to guide policy and the steps to follow to actually implement such an index.
According to the report, the green biofuels index should be developed through a cooperative effort by environmental, regulatory, and agricultural agencies, along with members of local, state or national government.
The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, nonprofit organization of scientists, lawyers, and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has 1.2 million members and online activists, served from offices in New York, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Beijing.