As negotiators from approximately 200 countries convene in Copenhagen for the United Nations climate change conference, there's one issue on which the world's wealthier and poorer nations should be able to agree:
Immediate action is needed to increase the production of biofuels of all kinds, particularly for use in the transportation sector that accounts for a large and growing share of greenhouse gas emissions.
After all, the major source of greenhouse gas emissions is fossil fuel combustion - which mostly means running cars, trucks and other vehicles with petroleum products, such as gasoline. Transportation accounts for 25 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, and this share will increase in 25 years when 3 billion cars throughout our planet will also drive daily oil consumption from the current 86 million barrels to a projected 120 million barrels.
Fortunately, one solution is already available. With the support and coordination of governments and international bodies, existing and emerging biofuels can continue to replace the use of gasoline and reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. Delegates to Copenhagen may not know it, but the limousines in which they are riding are running on ethanol made from straw.
This year, the world is expected to produce 80 billion liters (around 21 billion gallons) of ethanol, replacing the need for 1.9 billion barrels a day of crude oil. In 2008, the 9 billion gallons of domestic ethanol produced and consumed in the US resulted in a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions comparable to removing 2.1 million cars from the road.
Imagine the impact of increased production and consumption of ethanol on a global scale. It is estimated that the global production of biofuels will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 123 million tons in 2009 alone. Such an impressive and growing environmental benefit stands in stark contrast to the environmental footprint of the petroleum industry which continues to worsen.
Researchers from the University of Nebraska have reported that, compared to gasoline, today's ethanol reduces direct greenhouse gas emissions between 48 percent to 59 percent. This figure is for the current generation of ethanol which is made mostly from grains, such as corn.
The environmental benefits may be even greater from the next generation of ethanol, made from cellulosic sources such as wastes from wood and plants. According to the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory, ethanol produced from these cellulosic feedstocks has the potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 85 percent, compared to gasoline.
Meanwhile, as conventional oil is depleted and exploration shifts to unconventional sources such as tar sands, shale and the deep sea, finding and using petroleum will require more energy and release more greenhouse gases.
All of this is occurring against a backdrop of increased agricultural productivity. Vast tracts of arable land remain unused. As the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has reported, there are, at present, 1.5 billion hectares of land used for farming. That is only 11 percent of the world's surface area, and almost twice as much arable land - 2.8 billion acres - remains unused. With new farming technologies, this land can be responsibly and sustainably managed to provide a growing population both food and renewable fuel.
That is why it is so encouraging that the developing world has huge supplies of the "biomass" (wood and plant wastes) that will be the feedstocks for the next generation of biofuels. As one recent study concluded, biomass could fuel 65 percent of the world's energy consumption by 2050. Sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America account for about half of this global potential.
These facts stand in contrast to those who argue biofuels are destroying the land and responsible for deforestation. Yet, forest land in the US has been increasing at the same time that ethanol production has grown. Moreover, global deforestation has slowed as global biofuel production has accelerated.
The development of biofuels could fuel the economies of developing countries, reducing the desperation that produces deforestation by illegal logging, cattle ranching, and subsistence farming.
Energy security, economic growth, and environmental responsibility: These are three reasons why the Copenhagen climate change conference should create a new consensus, among developed and developing nations, to encourage the production and use of biofuels.
The RFA is working with the Global Renewable Fuels Association, representing over 60 percent of the world's renewable fuels production from 30 different countries, to make the case for biofuels before international bodies.