Assessing the Global Potential and Regional Implications of Promoting Bioenergy
Mary Ann Curran, PhD
Life Cycle Assessment Research Program Manager
US Environmental Protection Agency
Office of Research and Development
Cincinnati, Ohio 45268 USA


There is no simple answer to the question “are materials from bio-based feedstocks environmentally, and socially, preferable?” Bioenergy as an alternative energy source might be effective in reducing fossil fuel use, slowing global warming effects, and providing increased revenue for the farming community, but its production may contribute to other aspects, such as degraded soil and water quality and land use changes. This brings into question how we define and measure ‘sustainability.’


The benefits of bioenergy have come under increasing scrutiny as researchers look closer at the global environmental impact of production.  For example, diverting corn to make bioethanol could result in shifting production to competing crops, such as soybean, or the conversion of lands to corn production.  The overall impacts of these types of shifts are not well understood.  If used properly, bioenergy can help us meet our needs while maintaining ample supplies of food, animal feed, and clean water supplies. To make this happen, well thought out national bioenergy policies that support the best options are needed for both the short and long-term future.

 Some studies are called ‘life cycle analysis’ but only focus on a particular issue or pollutant of concern, such as greenhouse gas emissions, while others focus on the net energy gain or loss question. These focused studies fall short of a complete life cycle approach that helps us recognize how our choices influence each point of the life cycle so that we can balance potential trade-offs and avoid shifting problems from one medium to another and/or from one life cycle stage to another.

This paper explores how systems thinking, such as life cycle assessment, can help decision-makers view the potential ‘cradle-to-grave’ impacts of various types of biofuels and, thereby, choose the most favorable options that will keep us on the path toward sustainability. 

Full Paper (.doc format, 91.0 kb)

9:00 AM-5:00 PM, Thursday, June 26, 2008, Oral

The Netherlands, 2008 Meeting