Environmental outcomes of the US Renewable Fuel Standard

By PNAS |  March 1, 2022


Biofuels are included in many proposed strategies to reduce anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions and limit the magnitude of global warming. The US Renewable Fuel Standard is the world’s largest existing biofuel program, yet despite its prominence, there has been limited empirical assessment of the program’s environmental outcomes. Even without considering likely international land use effects, we find that the production of corn-based ethanol in the United States has failed to meet the policy’s own greenhouse gas emissions targets and negatively affected water quality, the area of land used for conservation, and other ecosystem processes. Our findings suggest that profound advances in technology and policy are still needed to achieve the intended environmental benefits of biofuel production and use.


The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) specifies the use of biofuels in the United States and thereby guides nearly half of all global biofuel production, yet outcomes of this keystone climate and environmental regulation remain unclear. Here we combine econometric analyses, land use observations, and biophysical models to estimate the realized effects of the RFS in aggregate and down to the scale of individual agricultural fields across the United States. We find that the RFS increased corn prices by 30% and the prices of other crops by 20%, which, in turn, expanded US corn cultivation by 2.8 Mha (8.7%) and total cropland by 2.1 Mha (2.4%) in the years following policy enactment (2008 to 2016). These changes increased annual nationwide fertilizer use by 3 to 8%, increased water quality degradants by 3 to 5%, and caused enough domestic land use change emissions such that the carbon intensity of corn ethanol produced under the RFS is no less than gasoline and likely at least 24% higher. These tradeoffs must be weighed alongside the benefits of biofuels as decision-makers consider the future of renewable energy policies and the potential for fuels like corn ethanol to meet climate mitigation goals.

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