Framework for improved confidence in modeled nitrous oxide estimates for biofuel regulatory standards

  • Shuang Gao
  • Patrick L. Gurian
  • Paul R. Adler
  • Sabrina Spatari
  • Ram Gurung
  • Saurajyoti Kar
  • Stephen M. Ogle
  • William J. Parton
  • Stephen J. Del Grosso
Original Article


Biofuels vary greatly in their carbon intensity, depending on the specifics of how they are produced. Policy frameworks are needed to ensure that biofuels actually achieve intended reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Current approaches do not account for important variables during cultivation that influence emissions. Estimating emissions based on biogeochemical models would allow accounting of farm-specific conditions, which in turn provides an incentive for producers to adopt low emissions practices. However, there are substantial uncertainties in the application of biogeochemical models. This paper proposes a policy framework that manages this uncertainty while retaining the ability of the models to account for (and hence incentivize) low emissions practices. The proposed framework is demonstrated on nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from the cultivation of winter barley. The framework aggregates uncertainties over time, which (1) avoids penalizing producers for uncertainty in weather, (2) allows for a high degree of confidence in the emissions reductions achieved, and (3) attenuates the uncertainty penalties borne by producers within a timescale of several years. Results indicate that with effective management, N2O emissions from feedstock cultivation may be < 5% of the carbon intensity of gasoline, whereas the existing policy approach estimates emissions > 20% of the carbon intensity of gasoline. If these emissions reductions are monetized, the framework can provide up to $0.002 per liter credits (0.8 cents per gallon) to fuel producers, which could incentivize emissions mitigation practices by biofuel feedstock suppliers, such as avoiding fall N application on silty clay loam soils. The conservatism in the current approach fails to incentivize the adoption of biofuels, while the lack of specificity fails to incentivize site-level mitigation practices. Improved uncertainty accounting and consideration of farm-level practices will incentivize mitigation efforts at landscape to global scales.


Climate policy frameworks Climate change mitigation Carbon accounting Energy policy Ethanol Life cycle assessment Nitrous oxide mitigation 



The authors thank Matt Myers and Melannie Hartman for assistance in DayCent model simulations and Bahar Riazi for assistance with R language programming.

Funding information

This work is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture under USDA-NIFA 2012-10008-20263.

Compliance with ethical standards

Mention of trade names or commercial products in this publication is solely for the purpose of providing specific information and does not imply recommendation or endorsement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. USDA is an equal opportunity provider and employer.


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Copyright information

© This is a U.S. government work and its text is not subject to copyright protection in the United States; however, its text may be subject to foreign copyright protection 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Shuang Gao
    • 1
  • Patrick L. Gurian
    • 1
  • Paul R. Adler
    • 2
  • Sabrina Spatari
    • 1
  • Ram Gurung
    • 3
  • Saurajyoti Kar
    • 1
  • Stephen M. Ogle
    • 3
  • William J. Parton
    • 3
  • Stephen J. Del Grosso
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental EngineeringDrexel UniversityPhiladelphiaUSA
  2. 2.Pasture Systems and Watershed Management Research UnitUnited States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS)University ParkUSA
  3. 3.Natural Resource Ecology LaboratoryColorado State UniversityFort CollinsUSA
  4. 4.Soil Plant Nutrient Research UnitUSDA-ARSFort CollinsUSA

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