The economic and environmental costs and benefits of the renewable fuel standard

Luoye Chen, Deepayan Debnath, Jia Zhong, Kelsie Ferin, Andy VanLoocke, Madhu Khanna

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Mandates, like the renewable fuel standard (RFS), for biofuels from corn and cellulosic feedstocks, impact the environment in multiple ways by affecting land use, nitrogen (N)-leakage, and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. We analyze the differing trade-offs these different types of biofuels offer among these multi-dimensional environmental effects and convert them to a monetized value of environmental damages (or benefits) that can be compared with the economic costs of extending these mandates over the 2016-2030 period. The discounted values of cumulative net benefits (or costs) are then compared to those with a counterfactual level of biofuels that would have been produced in the absence of the RFS over this period. We find that maintaining the corn ethanol mandate at 56 billion l till 2030 will lead to a discounted cumulative value of an economic cost of $199 billion over the 2016-2030 period compared to the counterfactual scenario; this includes $109 billion of economic costs and $85 billion of net monetized environmental damages. The additional implementation of a cellulosic biofuel mandate for 60 billion l by 2030 will increase this economic cost by $69 billion which will be partly offset by the net discounted monetized value of environmental benefits of $20 billion, resulting in a net cost of $49 billion over the 2016-2030 period. We explore the sensitivity of these net (economic and environmental) costs to alternative values of the social costs of carbon and nitrogen and other technological and market parameters. We find that, unlike corn ethanol, cellulosic biofuels can result in positive net benefits if the monetary benefits of GHG mitigation are valued high and those of N-damages are not very high.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number034021
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2021


  • Cost-benefit analysis
  • Indirect land use change
  • Social cost of carbon
  • Social cost of nitrogen

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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