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Biofuels - issues

This page provides information on some of the issues surrounding biofuels. These include their viability, their sustainability, and potential food and water shortages.

Biofuels - issues

Biofuels appear to be the answer to many problems. If peak oil has been reached, domestic fossil fuel prices will only increase. This affects not only the price we pay for road fuel, but must also be factored in to the costs of many other products. For example, despite needing to remain competitive, road hauliers must eventually pass on to consumers increases in road diesel prices. Being able to grow an unlimited supply of fuel has obvious attractions.

In addition, theoretically, biofuels should be carbon neutral in that they release only the amount of carbon that they have taken up (sequestered) (Hill et al., 2006). However, as you will see, things are not so straightforward.

Are biofuels viable and sustainable?

Simply put, in theory, Yes; in practice, probably not. At least not when current appetites for fossil fuels are balanced against the existing biofuels technology.

Net Energy Balance

To be a real, long-term alternative to fossil fuels, biofuels should be no less efficient than the energy taken to produce them. In other words, does it cost more in energy to grow, process and distribute the biofuel than the biofuel will actually yield?  One study found that biodiesel, but not bioethanol, does meet this criteria (Hill et al., 2006).

Biofuel Carbon Debt

However, a recent study suggests that a broader perspective needs to be taken. To produce biofuels on a commercial scale will require significant land use change. What does this mean? If the U.S. converted all its current corn and soya bean production to biofuels, it would satisfy just 6% of diesel demand (Hill et al., 2006). The issue of food shortfalls will be considered below. For the moment, it should be clear that to meet anything more than a fraction of the global demand for biofuels will require land conversion. The most extreme example is the conversion of rainforest to biofuel production.

Soils and plants store approximately 2.7 times the carbon the atmosphere can hold (Woods Hole Research Center, 2007). Land conversion, for instance from rainforest to biofuel croplands, releases CO2 into the atmosphere as the plant biomass decays and any surface burn-off takes place (Fargione et al., 2008). The "carbon debt" therefore is the amount of CO2 released as a result of this land conversion. For the period that the carbon debt is "outstanding", biofuels planted on converted land will have greater greenhouse gas impacts than the fossil fuels they replace. One calculation suggests that the conversion of Indonesian or Malaysian lowland rainforest to palm biodiesel would result in a carbon debt repayment period of 86 years (Fargione et al., 2008: 1237). For peatland rainforest, because of the drainage necessary to prepare the land, this rises to 420 years (ibid.: 1237). Land conversion for biofuel crops has the opposite effect to one of those intended in that it increases greenhouse gas emissions. Continuing to grow food crops on agricultural land helps to reduce the emissions that result from land use change (Searchinger et al., 2008).

Some countries subsidise the use of biofuels, for example, Australia and the U.S.A, making them artificially cheap (O'Connell et al., 2007). If the subsidised biofuels are grown on converted land, this is effectively subsidising an increase in climate change emissions. If the biofuels are being diverted from being used as food crops, it will likely increase the effects of the food crisis.

Food shortages

Most of the current biofuels are based on food crops (Dufey, 2006). Recent price increases of staple foods, partly attributed to growing demand for biofuels, have lead to food riots around the world (Kirkup, 2008). With the global population forecast to increase from its current 6.5 billion to 9.2 billion by 2050 (United Nations, 2007), clearly there are going to be many more mouths to feed. From 1998-2002, 840 million people were undernourished, 799 million of them in developing countries (FAO UN, 2002).  That number would be expected to rise if the supply of foodstuffs becomes restricted. Jean Ziegler, the U.N.'s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food described the use of food crops for biofuels as a "crime against humanity" (Lederer, 2007: np)

Water shortages

Agricultural crops require water to grow. If land is already given over to food crops, diverting those crops to biofuel use will have no impact on water supplies. However, in the case where there is land conversion, for instance from rainforest to farm, additional water may be used to irrigate the new crops. This will be a particular issue for countries that already experience water shortages (de Fraiture et al., 2008).

Climate change

An in-depth consideration of climate change is outside the scope of this project. However, as climate change is one of the drivers of the transition to biofuels as well as one of the unintended consequences of that transition, a simple explanation is given here.

The consumption of fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide (CO2), one of the principal greenhouse gases, into the atmosphere.  The other main greenhouse gases are methane (CH4), and nitrous oxide (N2O) (UNFCCC, nd). The release of CO2 and other gases (usually measured as carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2-eq)) through anthropogenic activities has lead to what is widely accepted as global climate change, also known as global warming (Energy Saving Trust, 2008). Greenhouse gases are so called because they allow the Earth to be kept warm by being insulated against the loss of the sun’s heat after being reflected by the Earth’s surface (Solcomhouse, no date). To attempt to simplify a complex science, the current climate change occurs because the level of greenhouse gas emissions is greater than the Earth’s capacity to absorb them. The greater the accumulation of greenhouse gases, the more insulating the effect, which further increases climate change.

The 1997 Kyoto Protocol brought worldwide popular and governmental recognition of climate change (IPCC, 2007). Whilst there is debate about its usefulness, as a direct result of the Kyoto agreement, many countries, including Europe as a single bloc, were required to introduce greenhouse gas emission limits.  As part of its Strategic Energy Technology Plan, in 2007, the European Council “agreed on a 10% binding minimum target to be achieved by all Member States for the share of biofuels in overall EU transport petrol and diesel consumption by 2020.” (European Commission, 2007: 41).  Given that the European Union countries have a combined population of 493 million people, the third largest after China and India (Europa, 2005), and that around three-quarters of all journeys by Europeans are made by private car (Europa, nd), such directives by the European Council may have implications that spread far beyond its own borders.

Despite recognition that fossil fuels are being consumed at an unsustainable rate, global consumption is increasing, largely driven by the rapidly expanding economies of countries such as India and China. For example, China builds two new coal-fired power stations every week (Environmental Audit Committee, 2007: EV42). By 2050, it is estimated that the world will need two Earths to maintain its projected levels of consumption (WWF, 2006: 20). One estimate of biodiversity loss through climate change calculated that, depending on the level of climate change (minimal, mid-range or maximum change), species extinction by 2050 will be between 18% and 35% (Thomas et al., 2004: 145).

The Stern Review into the Economics of Climate Change, a soberly-worded 700-word report commissioned by the previous U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, urges immediate action to mitigate against what it describes as "increasing risks of serious, irreversible impacts from climate change" (Stern, 2006: iii). Asked during a presentation at Oxford Brookes in April 2008, the well-regarded broadcast journalist, Jon Snow, said that he believed that none of the world's leaders seemed yet to have fully grasped the significance of climate change or the need for a robust response.

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