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Diving Deeper

Our Work in Biofuels

Work Area: Bioenergy & Land Use

CATF promotes sustainable agriculture and climate stability by building awareness of the opportunities and risks in biofuel policies and by partnering with leading researchers to analyze the real-world environmental impacts of biofuels.

CATF aims to refocus biofuel policy by replacing outdated assumptions with data-driven analyses. We collaborate with economists, climate modelers, and other researchers around the world to anticipate and assess the full impact of biofuel policies on global agriculture and forest product markets, as well as the associated effects on climate, food prices, biodiversity, and social conditions in the regions where biofuel feedstocks are grown.

United States energy policies have promoted biofuels production through mandates, subsidies, and tax credits for decades. Legislation enacted in 2007 dramatically expanded the nation’s commitment to biofuels, raising annual biofuel consumption targets from 5 billion gallons in 2006 to 36 billion gallons in 2022. The federal biofuel consumption mandate, called the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), is failing. The policy was supposed to stimulate the development of climate-beneficial biofuels made from waste material and other feedstocks that don’t compete for farmland. But after more than a decade, the vast majority of biofuel sold to comply with the RFS is made from corn, soybeans, and sugar.

RFS Corn Ethanol Graph

Using productive agricultural lands to grow the crops used to make these fuels reduces the amount of land available for food production. The resulting reduction in supply creates a price signal that impels farmers and ranchers to convert forests, grasslands, and wetlands into cropland and pastures; when these lands are plowed under, substantial amounts of carbon dioxide from soil and plants are released into the atmosphere. As a result of these land use-related emissions, the net climate impact of most conventional biofuels ranges from slightly better than that of gasoline and diesel to considerably worse.

Policies that promote the use of biofuels are being reworked in Europe, while discussions are underway in the United States to refocus and right-size the RFS. CATF is working with agencies and independent researchers on analytic tools and policies measures that more effectively distinguish between biofuels that can help mitigate climate change and those that cannot.

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