Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways (STEPS)
Available online at: doi: 10.1021/es400435n
Dominguez-Faus, Rosa, Christian Folberth, Jungo Liu, Amy Myers Jaffe, Pedro J. Alvarez (2013) Climate Change Would Increase the Water Intensity of Irrigated Corn Ethanol. Environmental Science & Technology 47 (11), 6030 - 6037
Changes in atmospheric CO2 concentrations, temperature, and precipitation affect plant growth and evapotranspiration. However, the interactive effects of these factors are relatively unexplored, and it is important to consider their combined effects at geographic and temporal scales that are relevant to policymaking. Accordingly, we estimate how climate change would affect water requirements for irrigated corn ethanol production in key regions of the U.S. over a 40 year horizon. We used the geographic-information-system-based environmental policy integrated climate (GEPIC) model, coupled with temperature and precipitation predictions from five different general circulation models and atmospheric CO2 concentrations from the Special Report on Emissions Scenarios A2 emission scenario of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to estimate changes in water requirements and yields for corn ethanol. Simulations infer that climate change would increase the evaporative water consumption of the 15 billion gallons per year of corn ethanol needed to comply with the Energy Independency and Security Act by 10%, from 94 to 102 trillion liters/year (tly), and the irrigation water consumption by 19%, from 10.22 to 12.18 tly. Furthermore, on average, irrigation rates would increase by 9%, while corn yields would decrease by 7%, even when the projected increased irrigation requirements were met. In the irrigation-intensive High Plains, this implies increased pressure for the stressed Ogallala Aquifer, which provides water to seven states and irrigates one-fourth of the grain produced in the U.S. In the Corn Belt and Great Lakes region, where more rainfall is projected, higher water requirements could be related to less frequent rainfall, suggesting a need for additional water catchment capacity. The projected increases in water intensity (i.e., the liters of water required during feedstock cultivation to produce 1 L of corn ethanol) because of climate change highlight the need to re-evaluate the corn ethanol elements of the Renewable Fuel Standard.