The U.S. lacks the policies needed to ensure that cellulosic biofuel production will not cause environmental harm, says a distinguished group of international scientists. A paper published in the October 3 issue of Science urges decision makers to adopt standards and incentives that will help ensure that future production efforts are sustainable, both energetically and environmentally.
Because the cellulosic biofuel industry is young, policymakers have the opportunity to implement science-based standards before large-scale crop production begins. Early preventive polices could play a major role in minimizing the unintentional side effects of large-scale crop production, such as fertilizer and pesticide pollution, soil erosion, invasive species spread, the fouling of waterways, and species loss.
“Society is in a race to find renewable sources of carbon-neutral energy. Cellulose-based biofuels hold promise, but we need to proceed cautiously and with an eye toward minimizing long-term ecological impacts,” notes Kathleen Weathers, Ph.D., an ecosystem scientist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies and one of the paper’s authors.
“Without a sound plan, we could wind up doing more environmental harm than good.”
Grain-based ethanol has already served as a lesson in the perils of embracing energy solutions before their environmental effects are understood, say the researchers. Most of the commercial ethanol produced in the U.S. is made from corn. When large parts of the landscape are converted to such resource-intensive, monoculture grain crops, as is the current model, the scientific consensus is that the environment suffers.
Moving forward, if cellulosic ethanol is to emerge as a feasible source of renewable energy, a vast amount of land will need to be used for its production. This land conversion—estimated to be as large as the amount of land in row-crops today—will change the face of the global landscape. Production standards and incentive programs could help minimize negative impacts and, in many cases, help farmers choose crops that provide valuable ecosystem services.