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Are Biofuels Green or Not?

By: Kathryn Senior PhD - Updated: 29 Sep 2010 | comments*Discuss
 
Biofuels Sustainable Energy Sustainable

Biofuels may be renewable sources of energy, but that does not necessarily mean they are environmentally sound. A key problem with biofuels – which have been more accurately named ‘agrofuels’ by some experts – is that they require large amounts of plant material to produce. This plant material requires an incredible amount of land on which to grow.

In the past few years, as our reliance on fossil fuels such as oil has become impossible to maintain, there has been a move by western governments and businesses to expand the production of biofuels to provide renewable fuel for global industries. By 2020, in just over 11 years time, 10% of all the transport fuel used in Europe is targeted to come from biofuel sources.

Similar targets set in the USA say it will produce 35 billion gallons of biofuels annually by 2020. To fulfil this ambitious goal, nearly all of the corn and soy harvested in North America would need to be subverted to biofuel production. And Europe would only be left with 30% of its land to grow crops for food. Estimates say that around 75% of the increase in food prices seen in recent years has been due solely to the expansion of biofuels.

Looking South

As a solution to this problem, more affluent countries have commissioned biofuel crop products that they then intend to use as the raw materials for biofuel production from low- and middle-income countries in Africa, Asia and South America. Brazil is already very well known from its production of biofuels from sugar cane and other countries are following in its footsteps.

Land Use Conflicts

One of the most worrying aspects of the increase in biofuel production is the pressure that it will put on land. Some areas of rich forest will no doubt be cleared to make more space to grow cash crops. There will also be a conflict between the local people who belong to companies who are offering employment in the area and who want to use land for biofuel crops and individuals and organisations who want to grow food crops.

It does not make sense for a rural community in Africa to use the majority of its land to grow sugar cane to fuel cars in US and European cities while its own people, who probably don’t even own a car, go without food.

Although proponents of biofuels argue that the influx of new investment into poorer areas of the world will have a benefit in terms of job creation and more disposable income, critics say that it will force people to leave their land and will actually cause more poverty.

Genetic Engineering

It has also been suggested that genetically engineering crops to produce the plant components that make better biofuels will make land use more efficient. However, genetically engineered plants are not well understood with respect to their impact on the environment, so this seems an uncertain solution. Contamination of local environments may cause problems that we cannot even anticipate.

Will Biofuels Reduce Global Warming?

Although biofuels are renewable and they are made from plants, which release oxygen into the atmosphere and take in carbon dioxide, the process of developing them may not help with global warming at all. The process of recovering the useful components from the plant material and converting the raw chemicals into hydrocarbons that can be used as clean and efficient fuels is a complex one. It is also very inefficient. Some experts have calculated that producing a gallon of fossil fuels requires much more than one gallon of oil – which completely defeats the objective.

In order to grow the crops required for the production of biofuels, other resources are also used which create environmental emissions. Fertilisers derived from petroleum, one of the fractions of crude oil, are used in great quantities to maximise the crop yields of plants used in biofuel production. Emissions of nitrous oxide also increase and this gas also acts as a greenhouse gas in the same way as carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, nitrous oxide is 300 times worse for its capacity to warm the Earth.

Is There a Future for Biofuels?

Possibly, even though agrofuels may eventually be outlawed. Some researchers are looking into the possibility of producing fuels using microbes, particularly blue green algae. These can be grown in great vats of liquid nutrient, so do not require an increase in land-use. If the culture conditions, the right species of algae and the chemical processes required to turn them into fuel can be perfected, this might provide a much more sustainable solution to the global fuel crisis.

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