RFS Roundup: The Real Environmental Impacts of the Ethanol Mandate

September 23, 2015

It seems that the environment is on everyone’s minds this week.

During his first trip to the U.S., Pope Francis will address Congress, an event around which environmental groups have planned a major climate rally expected to draw hundreds of thousands of participants. Hundreds of prominent figures and organizations are meeting at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting this weekend to discuss solutions to global, environmental and human rights issues. New Yorkers are also congregating this week to celebrate Climate Week and advocate for more innovative climate change solutions.

While these conversations may be happening through many different channels and among many types of people, one thing is clear: people of all stripes are ready to act for positive environmental change.

But we must remember that not every proposed “solution” is equal. For example, in an attempt to take steps toward alleviating climate change, several governments around the world have enacted biofuel mandates in the hopes that replacing gasoline with fuel distilled from biomass would reduce carbon emissions. Case in point, the U.S.’s Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) mandates billions upon billions of gallons of biofuels are blended into your gasoline, a mandate that is almost exclusively met through the production of corn ethanol. This is great for corn farmers, who lobby hard to ensure the law remains in place. However, because the production of corn ethanol produces an immense amount of greenhouse gas emissions, this policy has been found to actually increase emissions while also increasing competition for agricultural resources and the price of food, thus exacerbating world hunger.

Here are a few of the many pieces of evidence that demonstrate that “green” solutions like the RFS just aren’t working:

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)—21st century United States emissions mitigation could increase water stress more than the climate change it is mitigating

In short: PNAS recently published a study that found that climate change mitigation policies, policies like the RFS that are dedicated to biofuel production, often require significant amounts of water resources and increase water stress across the country. In fact, this dependence on biofuels could cause a 42 percent increase in U.S. water consumption by 2100.

University of Wisconsin-Madison News—Plowing prairies for grains: Biofuel crops replace grasslands nationwide

In short: University of Wisconsin-Madison found that seven million acres of grassland were converted to plant corn crops for ethanol production between 2008 and 2012, which “mimics the extreme land-use change that led up to the Dust Bowl in the 1930s,” the study’s author, Tyler Lark, said. “Most new cropland was planted to corn that may ultimately fill our gas tanks…we could be, in a sense, plowing up prairies with each mile we drive.”

The Washington Post—Wasting the Savanna

In short: A Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs paper has revealed that, in an effort to grow crops to meet fuel mandates, farmers are converting vast amounts of Africa’s ecologically sensitive and biologically important savannas into factory farms to produce biofuels. African savannas are home to an immense diversity of animals and converting just half of Africa’s savannas “would increase the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere for more than 50 years.”

NOAA—­Quantifying the emissions from a large ethanol refinery

In short: A study from the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that “ethanol emissions [from a major U.S. ‪‎ethanol refinery] are 30 times higher than government estimates,” and these emissions can contribute to the formation of ground level ozone, a pollutant that can negatively affect human health—a frightening finding for anyone who lives near one of the 229 ethanol production facilities in the United States. 

Despite this mountain of irrefutable scientific research, this environmentally harmful mandate remains law, thanks to the heavy lobbying of the powerful corn ethanol industry. At a time when our environmental problems are only getting worse, continuing such ineffective policies isn’t just irresponsible—it’s insane. It’s time to take action for real environmental solutions. Join us and take action today.