Papers in the Biological Sciences


Date of this Version



GCB Bioenergy (2012) 4, 229–233, doi: 10.1111/j.1757-1707.2011.01123.x


2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd


Second generation biofuels, like cellulosic ethanol, have potential as important energy sources that can lower fossil fuel carbon emissions without affecting global food commodity prices. Agricultural crop residues, especially maize, have been proposed for use as biofuel, but the net greenhouse warming effect of the gained fossil fuel carbon offset needs to account for any ecosystem carbon losses caused by the large-scale maize residue removal. Using differential 13C isotopic ratios between residue and soil in an incubation experiment, we found that removal of residue increased soil organic matter decomposition by an average of 16%, or 540–800 kg carbon ha -1. Thus, removal of residue for biofuel production can have a hidden carbon cost, reducing potential greenhouse gas benefits. Accurate net carbon accounting of cellulosic biofuel needs to include not only fossil fuel savings from use of the residue, but also any declines in soil carbon caused directly and indirectly by residue removal.

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