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Sources of variability in estimates of greenhouse gas emissions and energy requirements for biofuel production

By Jeanette Whitaker, Katherine E. Ludley, Rebecca Rowe, Gail Taylor and David C. Howard


Across the energy sector, alternatives to fossil fuels are being developed, in response to the dual drivers of climate change and energy security. For transport, biofuels have the greatest potential to replace fossil fuels in the short-to medium term. However, the ecological benefits of biofuels and the role that their deployment can play in mitigating climate change are being called into question. Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a widely used approach that enables the energy and greenhouse gas (GHG) balance of biofuel production to be calculated. Concerns have nevertheless been raised that published data show widely varying and sometimes contradictory results. This review describes a systematic review of GHG emissions and energy balance data from 44 LCA studies of first- and second-generation biofuels. The information collated was used to identify the dominant sources of GHG emissions and energy requirements in biofuel production and the key sources of variability in published LCA data. Our analysis revealed three distinct sources of variation: (1) 'real' variability in parameters e.g. cultivation; (2) 'methodological' variability due to the implementation of the LCA method; and (3) 'uncertainty' due to parameters rarely included and poorly quantified. There is global interest in developing a sustainability assessment protocol for biofuels. Confidence in the results of such an assessment can only be assured if these areas of uncertainty and variability are addressed. A more defined methodology is necessary in order to allow effective and accurate comparison of results. It is also essential that areas of uncertainty such as impacts on soil carbon stocks and fluxes are included in LCA assessments, and that further research is conducted to enable a robust calculation of impacts under different land-use change scenarios. Without the inclusion of these parameters, we cannot be certain that biofuels are really delivering GHG savings compared with fossil fuels.\u

Topics: Agriculture and Soil Science, Ecology and Environment
Publisher: Wiley
Year: 2010
DOI identifier: 10.1111/j.1757-1707.2010.01047.x
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