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Changes in Global Land Use and CO2 Emissions from US Bioethanol Production: What Drives Differences in Estimates between Corn and Cellulosic Ethanol?

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Abstract: Land use change (LUC) CO2 emissions associated with bioenergy production depend on the amount of land required to produce bioenergy crops, the carbon stored in such crops (including in the leaves, stalk, roots and soil), and the carbon emitted when another land cover is directly or indirectly displaced as a result. In this study, we use a global integrated assessment model [the Global Change Analysis Model (GCAM)] to explore the differences in estimates of LUC CO2 emissions for two crops (corn and switchgrass) used to produce ethanol in the United States under alternative assumptions about natural lands protection. Varying the latter assumptions for corn ethanol results in net LUC CO2 emissions between 7 and 41 gCO2 per MJ of ethanol, whereas varying the same assumptions for switchgrass ethanol results in net emissions between −−26 and 14 gCO2 per MJ of ethanol. The low-end estimate for each occurs when natural lands are assumed to be fully protected everywhere, which leads to significant cropland intensification. The high-end estimate for each occurs when natural lands are assumed to be unprotected everywhere, leading to greater cropland expansion and associated conversion of unmanaged forest and pasture. Results from this study could be used to inform scenarios of future energy system change or life cycle assessment of biofuels for which LUC emissions would be an input.

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