Researchers say that mandates concerning the production of biofuel brought in by the federal government could intensify some of the associated problems of climate change.

The study by researchers from Purdue and Stanford universities looked at how future global warming could push up corn prices. The researchers found that the extra volatility that climate change could bring to the corn market would be further exacerbated by the biofuel mandates, which they claim could help to increase price volatility by about 50 percent.

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The team of researchers looked particularly at how extreme heat or freak climactic events caused by global warming  would affect the yield in corn growing regions of the U.S.

The study found that even if temperatures only rose by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels (the current globally recognized climate change target), this would still be enough to make damaging heat waves a far more common event in the U.S. Corn Belt.

According to the model assembled by the researchers, a drop in corn yields caused by very hot weather would push up prices. This would mean that ethanol plants, forced to meet the federal mandates for production, would be left with no choice but to bid up corn prices. This would push the price up even higher. Apart from the ethanol plants themselves, this would also effect consumers and livestock producers, who currently take about a third of the byproduct made when crops are turned into ethanol, which they use as animal feed.

Under the current laws, the federal government mandates for an increasing amount of ethanol and other biofuels to be made each year. Right now, around 39 percent of the U.S corn crop goes to make ethanol.

“There could be quite a substantial increase in yield volatility, and that’s due to the increased frequency and intensity of the high temperatures throughout the Corn Belt,” Thomas Hertel, a Purdue distinguished professor of agricultural economics, said in a statement. “Closer integration of the corn and energy markets through the ethanol industry could aid in buffering these shocks, but this would not occur in the presence of a mandate.”

corn harvest
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Mandates for biofuels were first introduced in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which instituted a renewable fuels standard (RFS) requiring refiners to blend increasing amounts of biofuel into gasoline. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 extended and enlarged the RFS, mandating 36 billion gallons of biofuels by 2022.

Noah Diffenbaugh, assistant professor of earth sciences at Stanford University, who with Hertel co-authored the report published recently in the journal Nature, said in statement: “We find that even one or two degrees of global warming is likely to increase heat waves enough to cause much higher frequency of low-yield years, leading to greater volatility of corn prices.”

Hertel and Diffenbaugh’s research was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

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