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New UN reports question ethanol's role in mitigating climate change

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JOHNSTON, Iowa – New reports from the United Nations question how useful corn ethanol is in mitigating the effects of climate change, and have ignited an Internet firestorm.

The March release of several working group reports from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has renewed debate over the efficacy of corn ethanol in mitigating the effects of climate change.

The documents suggest indirect emissions, such as those from land-use change for the purpose of growing crops for biomass, may in some cases result in greater emissions than production of petroleum.

Online commenters have argued corn ethanol was meant to be proof-of-concept for cellulosic ethanol, which under the Renewable Fuel Standard is set to surpass corn ethanol by 2022.

Iowa Renewable Fuels Association Executive Director Monte Shaw says a hypothetical riddance of corn ethanol introduces another problem: what to do with all of the surplus corn.

“The notion that corn ethanol was supposed to be here for a little bit and then disappear,” Shaw says, “ignores 200 years of history of American farmers producing more corn every year, more efficiently, and on less land. So if we didn’t have the renewable fuels industry, we’d be swimming in corn, and farm income would be way down; program costs for the farm bill would be way up. So taxpayers should be very happy that we have renewable fuels because not only does it reduce farm bill costs but it lowers the price at the pump as well.”

The International Insitute for Sustainable Development has argued raising fuel efficiency standards at a governmental level is both cheaper and more effective at reducing vehicle emissions.

Here in the United States, fuel efficiency standards are called corporate average fuel economy or CAFE standards, and are set by the Department of Transportation with input from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Shaw says, even if that approach is adopted, ethanol persists as an economically attractive solution.

“To raise CAFE standards,” says Shaw, “you’re going to need more efficient engines. The only way to get a more efficient internal combustion engine is to have it be higher compression higher compression means more octane, the worlds cheapest supply of octane today is corn ethanol. So I think those two things dovetail together quite nicely if that’s the path that policy makers want to go down.”