Some companies are happy to say that biofuels are the answer. They promise we can have the range, easy refueling, and already-built infrastructure of internal combustion, while making our vehicles sustainable and environmentally friendly. This thinking led to the development of corn-based ethanol, a fuel lauded by the U.S. government as a tool to reduce emissions and dial down our reliance on foreign oil. Corn ethanol is now added to a whopping 98 percent of the gasoline sold in our country. But it's not as good as it sounds.
Jason Fenske of Engineering Explained breaks it down in his new video. The logic behind corn ethanol makes sense at first. Rather than releasing carbon from oil into the atmosphere, biofuels turn carbon into a cycle cycle. Growing corn absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, including the carbon released by burning fuels. An EPA study suggested that these fuels could reduce emissions by up to 20 percent.
The reality isn't that clean. Fenske's video hinges on a new study from researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The study, released last month, suggests that in the real world, ethanol provides no discernible reduction in emissions. In fact, corn-based ethanol is up to 24 percent more carbon-intensive than traditional gasoline. That's because, while growing corn is a carbon sink, every other part of the process of turning corn into fuel creates intense emissions output.
Government mandates for corn-based ethanol production require converting land to grow corn. That process often requires clearing vegetation and plowing the ground via heavy combustion-powered machinery, and releases carbon that was stored in the soil itself. The land used for corn farming is unavailable for more environmentally or societally beneficial uses, and caring for, harvesting, and refining the corn into biofuel all takes massive amounts of energy.
None of this is great for the environment. Fenkse quotes Harvard researcher Cynthia Giles' report, "Environmental Regulation for the Modern Era," to drive home the point: "The carbon released from land use changes alone can wipe out any climate benefit from biofuels," Giles writes.
The best-case scenario for corn-based ethanol is a 20-percent reduction in carbon emissions. Given that ethanol typically comprises 10 percent of commercially available gasoline, that means ethanol is good for about a two-percent reduction in carbon emissions.
Giles, once again, says it best. "Given the levels of ambiguity that are inherent in determining the impact of low carbon fuel standards on land use emissions and the limits of our ability to quantify those impacts, encouraging biofuels that only seek to achieve a 20-percent improvement over fossil fuels is not sufficient. The band of uncertainty is so wide that what regulators think is a 20-percent benefit could in reality be causing harm. Many scientists think we are in negative territory already, pursuing a policy that is making the climate worse, rather than better."