May 16, 2014


Biofuel's Carbon Balance: Rethinking the Foundations of Climate Policy for Transportation Fuels


1:40 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.


1605 Tilia, Room 1103, West Village


Biofuels have been the presumed replacement for the petroleum-based transportation fuels that dominate liquid fuel use. Climate mitigation strategies for such fuels have long been guided by lifecycle analysis (LCA), which is now also used to specify regulatory policies. LCA incorporates a closed-loop model of biomass-based carbon flows. This paradigm makes net carbon uptake an assumption to be refuted even though evaluating net uptake through dynamic supply chains at real-world commercial scales is extremely difficult. A different perspective follows from a carbon balance model of the globally coupled bio- and fossil-fuel system. The resulting analysis reveals conditions under which biofuels provide a climate benefit. No benefit occurs in the energy sectors where biofuels are used, but rather must be found elsewhere in locations of carbon absorption or retention. This implies that mitigation efforts should focus on such locations and can include any mechanisms through which net uptake (an enhanced sink or verifiable offset) can be achieved. Thus, the climate challenge for carbon-based liquid fuels is best seen as a CO2 removal problem rather than as a fuel substitution problem. Although biofuels can play a mitigation role when certain conditions are met, de-emphasizing biofuels in favor of terrestrial carbon management may offer more immediate and effective ways to counterbalance the CO2 emitted when using carbon-based liquid fuels of any origin. Climate policies and research priorities for addressing transportation fuels should be reconsidered accordingly.

Biographical Sketch

John M. DeCicco holds a joint appointment as research professor at the University of Michigan Energy Institute and professor of practice at the School of Natural Resources and Environment. A nationally recognized expert on transportation energy and climate issues, his research addresses vehicle-fuel systems, oil demand, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the broader socioeconomic impacts of transportation. Prof. DeCicco’s past studies were instrumental in establishing the scientific basis for recent policies to increase auto efficiency. His current research focuses on mitigating the climate impacts of motor fuels and the role of intelligent and automated vehicles in improving energy efficiency and reducing GHG emissions from transportation. He teaches graduate-level courses and advises student research on transportation and sustainable energy.

Previously Prof. DeCicco was senior fellow for automotive strategies at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF, 2001-2009) and transportation director at the American Council for and Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE, 1990-2000). He has three books and over 100 published papers, reports, and formal public comments to his credit. He pioneered green car ratings in the United States as the author of ACEEE’s Green Book (launched in 1998) and most recently Prof. DeCicco received his doctorate in mechanical engineering from Princeton University in 1988.

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