Biofuels are being touted as the environmentally-friendly solution to transport fuels. However, it’s not quite that simple.
Q: What are biofuels?
A: Biofuels are liquid or gas fuels made from plants - such as ethanol made from sugar cane, or biodiesel made from oilseeds. Most biofuels come from crops grown for the purpose. Others are made from wastes such as chip fat, or
animal renderings from abbatoirs. Biofuels are one type of biomass energy – others include technologies such as wood-chip boilers for heating.
Q: Why should we be interested?
A: Biofuels are being touted as a replacement for petrol or diesel to power cars and other vehicles. Researchers are even being exploring the possibility of manufacturing a biofuel replacement for kerosene for aeroplanes! In theory biofuels are carbon neutral, because the carbon emitted when the fuel is burned is carbon extracted from the atmosphere when the crop was growing.
Q: That’s the theory – what’s the reality?
A: In practice biofuels, far from being climate neutral, can be worse than the fossil fuels they replace. The plant matter used is carbon neutral, but greenhouse gases are also emitted from soil cultivation, fertilizer use, processing and transport – and in some cases from forest clearance to grow the crops. In the worst cases emissions can be several times higher than if we had simply used fossil fuels (even accounting for extraction, refining and distribution). And that’s just the climate effects – there are other downsides to many biofuels.
Q: What sort of downsides?
A: Biofuel crops take land – which could otherwise be used to feed people. This is contributing to rising food prices, undermining food security, especially in the world’s poorest countries. As well as negative impacts on people,
biofuels are having serious impacts on wildlife. In Europe wildlife–rich ‘setaside’land on farms is being brought back into production. And in some tropical regions, there are devastating impacts where forests are being cleared –
either to grow biofuels or to replace land taken by biofuels from food production. In Indonesia palm oil plantations are replacing primary forest reducing the habitats of rare and endangered species such as orang-utans.
Q: What sort of biofuels are there, and how do they stack up?
A: Brazilian ethanol from sugar cane is the most established biofuel. It makes carbon savings, but land supply is limited, so other farmers have been pushed into the rainforest. Ethanol from maize in the US is been heavily
subsidized, but for no real carbon savings. Biodiesel from oilseed rape in Europe is at best providing only small climate benefits. Chip fat and other wastes simply don’t exist in the volumes demanded. Big energy companies are
pinning their hopes for any expansion on ‘second generation’ biofuels.
Q: Second generation biofuels?
A: They don’t exist yet, but would be produced much more efficiently by enzymic fermentation, rather than mechanical and chemical processing. They could use any waste biomass, or dedicated crops such as jatropha which can be grown in very poor soils. The developers claim we can expect up to 90% emissions savings.
Q: And do they have any problems?
A: Soil fertility could be harmed if organic matter in crop wastes is turned into fuel rather than recombined into the soil – leading to more need for chemical fertilizers. Worse, there are already signs that to maximize efficiency, second
generation biofuels will be based on genetically manipulated crops. The companies concerned foolishly think that because they won’t be grown as food, the public will accept GM.
Q: Are any biofuels sustainable?
A: There are a number of initiatives to label biofuels including a ‘sustainable palm-oil scheme’. Sadly, so far they are voluntary and full of loopholes – for example any indirect impacts on food production or wildlife are not considered.
Q: And what are governments doing?
A: Most are promoting biofuels regardless of source or sustainability. The EU has promised to set sustainability standards: but at the same time has set a target level for consumption that seems set to encourage yet more unsustainable production and imports.
Q: What does Friends of the Earth think?
A: Biofuels may have a role to play – especially some in the second generation, but we need sustainability standards in place before promoting increased use. There is probably more potential to use renewable energy for transport by investing in electric trains and trams, using renewable electricity. But most importantly we need to cut back on unsustainable levels of car and air travel.
Have your say on biofuels.