Climate 411

Corn Ethanol: Importance of Performance Standards

Robert BonnieThis post is by Robert Bonnie, Co-Director of the Land, Water and Wildlife Program at Environmental Defense Fund.

Corn FieldThe New York Times recently reported that thousands of farmers are dropping out of the federal government’s Conservation Reserve Program. The prices for corn and other crops are so high that conservation subsidies can’t compete with what farmers can make by planting the land. One reason for the high prices is the ethanol mandate in the energy bill Congress passed last year.

Shifts in land use from diverting food-producing land to grow crops for energy – called "indirect land-use change" – can potentially negate the environmental benefits of corn ethanol. There is still much debate on how to measure it, but no question it’s important to consider. One recent study published in Science (Searchinger et. al.) found that using croplands for biofuels causes a significant increase in greenhouse gas emissions relative to gasoline when indirect land use change is taken into account.

Unintended consequences such as these highlight the danger of mandating a specific clean energy technology, and the importance of relying on performance standards instead.

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