Biofuels and sustainability

Reducing damaging greenhouse gas emissions and moving toward sustainability is among our most important goals

In view of continuing population growth and expanding demand for goods and services, the development of sustainable approaches to provide for our needs and protect the natural environment for future generations are among the most compelling and critical issues before us.

This challenge is why many people have recently become engaged in exploring the potential for plant-based energy sources to reduce the use of fossil fuels, thereby moving the energy sector towards sustainability and helping to reduce damaging greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

in this, our second issue, we examine the limitations and opportunities to make use of available land for production of renewable fuels, specifically for cellulosic feedstock from plants that can be grown on lands that are not suitable for food crops (e.g., sloping land that would be subject to erosion if cultivated).

ideally these dedicated energy crops will yield high biomass but require little to no irrigation, need minimal amounts of fertilizer, and offer positive environmental attributes.
First, of course, are the questions of just how much of this marginal land is available and how much energy it could produce.studies vary, as do the definitions of what constitutes available and marginal lands.

Next is the challenge of how to make better use of the land that is already in use. For example, considering that about one quarter of the terrestrial surface is used for grazing, the obvious question arises about the efficiency and value of devoting so much land to this use.

Finally, we present a view on how technologies—from simple management of crop waste, to new approachesalong the entire supply chain—could lead to more fuel produced while preserving land and other limited national resources.

Also in this issue, the need for plant-based fuels becomes clear in a surprising study carried out for the state of California, seeking ambitious reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, California lawmakers set targets for 2050 and passed laws to support them.

But the question remained, just what would it take for California to meet its goals? For that analysis the state turned to a multidisciplinary team of scientists and researchers.
Their finding was that it will take everything—renewable fuels, efficiencies, electrification of vehicles—and more.

The key takeaway is that energy from biomass, including fuel and electricity, with its low GHG emissions is essential to meet the ambitious goal.

In this issue’s briefing insert we introduce some of the promising new energy grasses and trees that may be grown without competing directly with food production. As with all aspects of next-generation biofuels, a great deal of research is underway. Where can they grow?How much energy can they produce? How will they be harvested? What are their positive and negative environmental attributes?

The idea of changing the energy sector so that it becomes sustainable is bold. The incumbent industries are deeply entrenched and efficient in the absence of any meaningful penalties for the environmental effects of GHG emissions.

In this context, I hope you will enjoy reading our profile of José Goldemberg, a renewable energy visionary who has seen his vision become a reality. I asked him to serve on our editorial advisory board, in part because of his pioneering work in Brazil’s biofuel development, but primarily because of his thoughtful leadership of sustainable energy and his great support for and commitment to the developing world.

We have sincerely appreciated the support expressed and the comments provided following our inaugural issue. We continue to seek feedback and invite your suggestions about topics to cover, science to explore, and people to profile. Write us at

Chris Somerville
Executive Editor and Director of the Energy Biosciences Institute


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