Ethanol and the Environment

Ethanol is one of the best tools we have to reduce harmful emissions and fight air pollution from our vehicles. From its biodegradable nature to reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) and tailpipe emissions, ethanol addresses several environmental concerns many consumers have today.


Graphic courtesy of the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA).

Ethanol contains 35% oxygen which results in a more complete fuel combustions, reducing harmful-and sometimes toxic-tailpipe emissions. Ethanol also displaces the need to use toxic gasoline components inculding benzene, a carcinogen. Unlike it’s petroleum-based fossil fuel counterparts that rely on a limited supply and is a major contributor to carbon dioxide (CO2) and GHG emissions, ethanol is renewable, non-toxic, water-soluble, and quickly biodegradable.

Here are some other quick facts about ethanol:

  • Using ethanol helps reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 30 – 50%.
  • In 2014, the 14.3 billion gallons of ethanol produced reduced greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from on-road vehicles by 39.6 million metric tons. That’s the equivalent of removing 8.4 million cars and pickups from the road for one year.
  • New technologies are increasing ethanol yields, improving efficiencies and allowing ethanol biorefineries to make better use of natural resources. According to a recent analysis by the University of Illinois at Chicago, energy requirements for ethanol production have decreased 28% since 2001, electricity demand has decreased by 32% and water use fell by 47%-all while ethanol yields increased by 5.3%.
  • Ethanol reduces tailpipe carbon monoxide (CO) emissions by as much as 30%, toxics content by 13% (mass) and 21% (potency) and tailpipe fine particulate matter (PM) emissions by 50%.
  • Water usage in ethanol production is continually declining. To produce a gallon of gasoline, it requires anywhere from 2.5 – 8 gallons of water. In comparison it takes 2.7 gallons of water to produce a gallon of ethanol. Meanwhile, it takes 40 gallons of water to produce one cup of coffee, 4 gallons of water for a pound of hamburger, 11.6 gallons of water for a pound of chicken, and 300 million gallons of water for just one day’s worth of newspapers across the country.
  • Of the more than 200 components in gasoline, ethanol is the safest. Studies have found that ethanol poses no threat to groundwater. Since ethanol is a naturally-occurring substance produced during the fermentation of organic matter, it is rapidly biodegradable in essentially all environments.

For IRFA’s Top 10 Environmental Benefits list, please click here.