Land-use change and greenhouse gas emissions from corn and cellulosic ethanol
© Dunn et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2013
Received: 30 August 2012
Accepted: 27 March 2013
Published: 10 April 2013
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© Dunn et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd. 2013
Received: 30 August 2012
Accepted: 27 March 2013
Published: 10 April 2013
The greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that may accompany land-use change (LUC) from increased biofuel feedstock production are a source of debate in the discussion of drawbacks and advantages of biofuels. Estimates of LUC GHG emissions focus mainly on corn ethanol and vary widely. Increasing the understanding of LUC GHG impacts associated with both corn and cellulosic ethanol will inform the on-going debate concerning their magnitudes and sources of variability.
In our study, we estimate LUC GHG emissions for ethanol from four feedstocks: corn, corn stover, switchgrass, and miscanthus. We use new computable general equilibrium (CGE) results for worldwide LUC. U.S. domestic carbon emission factors are from state-level modelling with a surrogate CENTURY model and U.S. Forest Service data. This paper investigates the effect of several key domestic lands carbon content modelling parameters on LUC GHG emissions. International carbon emission factors are from the Woods Hole Research Center. LUC GHG emissions are calculated from these LUCs and carbon content data with Argonne National Laboratory’s Carbon Calculator for Land Use Change from Biofuels Production (CCLUB) model. Our results indicate that miscanthus and corn ethanol have the lowest (−10 g CO2e/MJ) and highest (7.6 g CO2e/MJ) LUC GHG emissions under base case modelling assumptions. The results for corn ethanol are lower than corresponding results from previous studies. Switchgrass ethanol base case results (2.8 g CO2e/MJ) were the most influenced by assumptions regarding converted forestlands and the fate of carbon in harvested wood products. They are greater than miscanthus LUC GHG emissions because switchgrass is a lower-yielding crop. Finally, LUC GHG emissions for corn stover are essentially negligible and insensitive to changes in model assumptions.
This research provides new insight into the influence of key carbon content modelling variables on LUC GHG emissions associated with the four bioethanol pathways we examined. Our results indicate that LUC GHG emissions may have a smaller contribution to the overall biofuel life cycle than previously thought. Additionally, they highlight the need for future advances in LUC GHG emissions estimation including improvements to CGE models and aboveground and belowground carbon content data.
Biofuels are often considered to be among the technologies that can reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts of the transportation sector. Yet the changes in land use that could accompany the production of biofuel feedstocks and the subsequent environmental impacts, including GHG emissions, are a potential disadvantage of biofuels. Land-use change (LUC) occurs when land is converted to biofuel feedstock production from other uses or states, including non-feedstock agricultural lands, forests, and grasslands. This type of LUC is sometimes called direct LUC. The resulting change in crop production levels (e.g., an increase in corn production may cause a decrease in soybean production) and exports may shift land uses domestically and abroad through economic linkages. This latter type of LUC is called indirect LUC and can be estimated through the use of economic models.
A change in land use causes a change in carbon stocks aboveground and belowground. As a result, a given LUC scenario may emit or sequester carbon. When an LUC scenario results in a net release of carbon to the atmosphere, it is debated if biofuels result in GHG reductions at all [1, 2]. Of particular concern is the conversion of forests [3, 4], an inherently carbon-rich land cover that in some cases may be a carbon sink. Their conversion to biofuel feedstock production land could incur a significant carbon penalty .
The estimation of LUC and the resulting GHG emissions is accomplished through the marriage of LUC data with aboveground carbon and soil organic carbon (SOC) data for each of the land types affected. The amounts and types of land converted as a result of increased biofuel production can be estimated with an agricultural-economic model, for example, a computable general equilibrium (CGE) model; several recent reports [6, 7] provide an overview of CGE models and their application to estimating LUC associated with biofuel production. It is also necessary to know the aboveground and belowground carbon content of the land in its original state and in its future state as feedstock production land. Aboveground carbon content information is provided by databases that are often built on satellite data , while SOC content can be modelled with tools such as CENTURY .
LUC GHG emissions from biofuel production are typically placed in the context of a biofuel life cycle analysis (LCA), which estimates the GHG emissions of a biofuel on a farm-to-wheels basis . Regulatory bodies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the California Air Resources Board (CARB), and the European Union [11–13], use LCA to evaluate the GHG impacts of biofuels.
When LUC GHG emissions are examined in the context of a biofuel’s life cycle, they can be substantive. For example, EPA estimated that LUC GHG emissions were 38% of total life cycle GHG emissions for corn ethanol produced in a natural gas-powered dry mill with dry distillers grains solubles (DGS) as a co-product . LUC GHG emissions are also highly uncertain  due to large uncertainties in CGE modelling, aboveground carbon data, and SOC content data .
As one of the most prevalent biofuels, corn ethanol has been the subject of most biofuel LUC research [14, 16]. Few studies have considered LUC GHG emissions from cellulosic ethanol production. Hill et al.  estimated domestic LUC GHG emissions for the production of 3.8 billion litres of ethanol based on conversion of land formerly in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) to production of corn, corn stover, switchgrass, prairie grass, and miscanthus. The resulting LUC GHG emissions for corn were between 27 and 35 g CO2e/MJ. These emissions were 0.5 and 0.2 g CO2e/MJ for switchgrass and miscanthus, respectively. Corn stover was assumed to have no LUC GHG emissions associated with its production. Scown et al.  considered a number of domestic U.S. scenarios for the production of 39.7 billion liters/year of ethanol from miscanthus, allowing only cropland or CRP lands to be converted to miscanthus production. These authors modelled productivity of miscanthus with Miscanmod at the county level. A model proposed by Matthews and Grogan  was used to estimate the SOC content of converted land. SOC changes were aggregated to the county level from a 90-meter resolution. In their calculation of LUC GHG emissions, Scown et al.  did not consider the impact of land management history on SOC content. Their study concluded that on net 3.4 to 16 g CO2e/MJ would be sequestered as a result of SOC changes. Separately, Davis et al.  considered the conversion of 30% of domestic (U.S.) land currently in corn production to miscanthus or switchgrass (fertilized or unfertilized) production. They used DAYCENT to simulate regional miscanthus and switchgrass cultivation in the central U.S. and identified lower GHG fluxes from cultivation when either crop was grown in place of corn. The reductions after 10 years (1.9% for switchgrass with fertilization and 19% for miscanthus) came from both reduction in fertilizer-derived N2O emissions and increased carbon sequestration. Similarly, Qin et al.  showed that SOC content increases by 50 and 80% when land is converted from corn cultivation to switchgrass and miscanthus, respectively. EPA has estimated LUC GHG emissions for cellulosic ethanol derived from corn stover (−10 g CO2e/MJ) and switchgrass (12 g CO2e/MJ) . CARB has examined forest residue and farmed trees as feedstocks for cellulosic ethanol [22, 23]. The agency developed preliminary LUC GHG estimates for the latter feedstock, which is not examined in our current study.
The above literature summary highlights two limitations of previous studies of LUC GHG emissions associated with cellulosic ethanol production. First, application of worldwide CGE modelling to LUC GHG calculations for cellulosic ethanol has been limited to EPA and CARB analyses for switchgrass and corn stover. Second, SOC emission factors have either been developed for very specific lands (e.g., CRP or agricultural lands) or at the national or regional scale for other land types, as in the CARB and EPA analyses. In our study, we sought to address these two limitations of the current literature.
GTAP modelling scenarios
Increase in Ethanol (BL)
An increase in corn ethanol production from its 2004 level of 13 billion litres (BL) to 57 BL
An increase of ethanol from corn stover by 35 BL, in addition to 57 BL corn ethanol
An increase of ethanol from miscanthus by 27 BL, in addition to 57 BL corn ethanol
An increase of ethanol from switchgrass by 27 BL, in addition to 57 BL corn ethanol
In this paper, we estimate LUC GHG emissions associated with ethanol produced from four feedstocks (corn, corn stover, switchgrass, miscanthus). A sensitivity analysis is conducted to investigate the influence of key carbon content modelling assumptions on results. Addressing CGE model assumptions and their impact on LUC GHG emissions is outside the scope of this paper.
Crop yield (dry metric ton/ha)
Ethanol productivity (L/ha)
Total domestic and international LUC for each feedstock (ha/MJ × 10 6 )
5.7 × 10-4
1.8 × 10-3
2.4 × 10-3
Surrogate CENTURY scenarios in CCLUB
Soil cultivation effect coeffecient
CCLUB is populated with carbon EFs generated from surrogate CENTURY modelling under four scenarios outlined in Table 4. The scenarios differ in their treatment of three key parameters: soil erosion, crop yield, and the soil cultivation effect coefficient. The latter was either left at default values or calibrated to real-world data. Additionally, EFs were also produced under different land management practices (conventional till, reduced till, no-till) for corn and corn stover feedstocks. We selected scenario “sd” in Table 4 as the base case for this study. For corn with and without stover harvest, the land management practice of conventional till is the base case setting.
In the case of corn ethanol (Figure 9b), applying the FPF decreases emissions by less than 1 g CO2e/MJ when the type of tillage and the HWP assumption are held constant. Changing the HWP assumption under a constant tillage and FPF scenario decreases emissions by approximately 1 g CO2e/MJ. As expected, for a given HWP and FPF configuration, corn grown under a no-till land management practice emits less carbon because tillage activities do not disturb the soil and release carbon to the atmosphere.
Range of LUC GHG emissions (g CO 2 e/MJ) a
Minimum U.S. LUC GHG emissions
Maximum U.S. LUC GHG emissions
International LUC GHG emissions
LUC GHG emissions range
2.7 to 19
−10 to −2.1
4.7 to 11
Lifecycle GHG emissions rangeb
10 to 26
−8.5 to −0.20
0.97 to 1.0
62 to 68
In this research, we have examined LUC GHG emissions of ethanol from four feedstocks: corn, corn stover, switchgrass, and miscanthus. Of the fuels examined, corn ethanol has the highest LUC GHG emissions. However, the estimate of LUC GHG emissions for this fuel has decreased substantially compared to earlier studies [1, 2, 11, 12, 36]. This evolution is due to improvements in CGE modelling such as modifications to the modelling of animal feed, yield responses to price increases, and representation of growth in both supply and demand .
Miscanthus ethanol shows the potential to sequester carbon over the course of its life cycle. This result is largely due to its high yield. Scown et al.  reached a similar conclusion, although they predict a higher amount of carbon sequestration from miscanthus production-induced LUC. On the other hand, switchgrass exhibits higher emissions than miscanthus because it is produced with a lower yield, necessitating more land, including carbon-rich forests, to be converted for its production. It is important to note that the contrast between switchgrass and miscanthus results is largely due to the difference in their yield. Similar differences may be observed between other high- and low-yield energy crops. LUC GHG emissions associated with corn stover were negligible. As the technology for corn stover’s conversion to biofuels and other uses matures, corn stover may evolve into a co-product of corn production rather than a waste product. In that case, future modelling efforts could allocate LUC GHG impacts between the two fuels.
The sensitivity of LUC GHG emissions to key modelling parameters that dictate carbon emissions from converted lands is highlighted from the range of possible results in Table 5, which are affected by belowground and aboveground carbon simulation assumptions and results. As discussed, we did not investigate the influence of key CGE parameters on emissions because we used only one set of GTAP results. The uncertainty associated with these models, including GTAP, is large and difficult to estimate, as Plevin et al.  discuss. Improvements to these models, including modelling scenarios in which multiple feedstocks are simultaneously produced, scenarios at higher resolution (state or county-level), and scenarios with dynamic crop yields will shed further light on biofuel-induced LUC and better inform estimates of subsequent GHG emissions.
Improvements to estimates of converted lands’ carbon content are also needed. First, SOC content data for soils worldwide is needed, as explained in Smith et al. , who provide a vision for developing these data and discuss key sources of uncertainty in their development. Soil organic matter models such as CENTURY would benefit from further calibration of default parameters, including the soil cultivation effect coefficient, with real-world data.
Additionally, it is important to include other factors that accompany LUC beyond soil carbon changes, as we have considered. For example, nitrogen fertilization rates will change, depending on the land use both on the site of feedstock production and at other, indirectly affected agricultural sites, affecting N2O emissions rates from the soil. The EPA has considered indirect effects like these . Further, Georgescu et al.  examine the effects of stored soil water, which can have a regional cooling effect, as impacted by LUC. Additionally, land cover albedo will change with LUC . Because the uncertainty that surrounds biofuel LUC impacts are a key barrier to what otherwise may be a technology that offers environmental and energy security benefits, these impacts certainly merit further study. It is important to realize, however, that the complexity inherent in modelling worldwide phenomena in the future that involve economic, biogeochemical, and biogeophysical effects will likely always lead to large uncertainties and will produce estimates of LUC GHG emissions that vary widely.
Despite the uncertainty and complexity associated with estimating LUC GHG emissions, the continued pursuit of improvement of these estimates will increase understanding of crop management practices that limit GHG emissions from SOC depletion, provide new data for policy formulation that limits LUC impacts through, for example, preventing conversion of carbon-rich lands (forests), and identify crops that minimize LUC GHG emissions when produced on a large scale as biofuel feedstocks.
To conduct the modelling for this analysis, we used Argonne National Laboratory’s CCLUB and GREET models . The GREET model is developed at Argonne National Laboratory and is widely used to examine GHG emissions of vehicle technologies and transportation fuels on a consistent basis. CCLUB combines land transition data from GTAP modelling  with carbon emission factors derived from several sources. Domestic SOC content data were developed with a surrogate model for CENTURY’s soil organic carbon submodel (SCSOC) [25, 26]. In this modelling, we estimated the forward change in soil C concentration within the 0–30 cm depth and computed the associated EFs for the 2011 to 2040 period for croplands, grasslands or pasture/hay, croplands/conservation reserve, and forests that were suited to produce any of four possible biofuel feedstock systems (corn-corn, corn-corn with stover harvest, switchgrass, and miscanthus). This modelling accounted for prior land-use history in the U.S. dating to 1880. SOC modelling was conducted under a number of parameter settings to examine the effect of soil erosion, crop yield increases, and the calibration of values for a key coefficient that represents the soil cultivation effect. Surrogate CENTURY modelling scenarios are shown in Table 4. Additionally, the effect of three different land management (tillage) scenarios for corn and corn stover production were examined: conventional till, no till, and reduced till. Our modelling of conventional tillage assumes that 95% of surface residues are mixed with soils, whereas no-tillage scenarios assume a converse 5% mixing of surface soils.
International SOC emission factors were adopted from data from the Woods Hole Research Center. The data, available at the biome level, were authored by R. Houghton and provided to CARB and Purdue University to support land-use modelling. Tyner and co-authors  reproduced the data set. We incorporated aboveground carbon emissions impacts of forest conversion using data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Forest Service/National Council for Air and Stream Improvement, Inc. (NCASI) Carbon Online Estimator (COLE) . Technical documentation for CCLUB is available . GREET parameters for feedstock production and growth are provided in several reports [31, 32, 40]. Other bioethanol life cycle parameters are provided in Wang et al. .
HK conducted this research while at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Recently, he has joined the staff at the International Food Policy Research Institute.
California Air Resources Board
Carbon Calculator for Land Use Change from Biofuels Production
Computable General Equilibrium
Carbon Online Estimator
Conservation reserve program
Distillers grains solubles
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Forest proration factor
Greenhouse gases regulated emissions, and energy use in transportation
Global Trade Analysis Project
Harvested wood product
Life cycle analysis
National Council for Air and Stream Improvement Inc
Renewable fuel standard
Surrogate CENTURY soil organic carbon dynamics submodel
Soil organic carbon
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Young forest shrub.
This study was supported by the Biomass Program of the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Office of the U.S. Department of Energy under Contract No. DE-AC02-06CH11357. The authors thank the support and guidance of Zia Haq and Kristen Johnson of the Biomass Program. The authors acknowledge valuable discussions with Wally Tyner of Purdue University, Michelle Wander of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Joshua Elliott of the University of Chicago. The authors are solely responsible for the contents of this paper.
This article is published under license to BioMed Central Ltd. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.