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Biofuels – A Good Way to Fight Climate Change?

The Earth’s climate is changing and the vast majority of the scientific community as well as the public is now convinced that human activity is contributing significantly to this phenomenon. The underlying cause is an increase in the concentration of ‘greenhouse gases’ in the Earth’s atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, which is released when fossil fuels are burnt; nitrous oxide from chemical fertilizers; and methane which is produced from activities like rice farming and livestock production. These gases trap heat in the atmosphere, leading to the ‘greenhouse effect’ – a rise in the average global temperature which leads to melting ice-caps and therefore rising sea-levels. Additionally, the change in the atmosphere makes the climate more unpredictable, increasing the incidence of ‘freak’ weather events such as hurricanes, floods and droughts (‘global weirding’). Regardless of what is causing the climate to change, preparations need to be made to cope with the consequences as they will impact on many aspects of life. One of these will be the world’s food supplies and food prices, since agricultural growing conditions will change in certain places, affecting the type and quantity of crops that can be grown. This in turn will affect people’s ability to buy and otherwise access food.

However, right now, the biggest impact of climate change on food supplies and food access does not come directly from the changes in climate. Instead, it comes from one of the ways in which we are trying to stop climate change: biofuels. ‘Undercovering Undernutrition Part II‘ showed that the growing demand for biofuels (mainly from western countries) means that in some areas biofuel crops are being grown preferentially over food crops due to their profitability. A 2010 report by the Institute for European Environmental Policy (IEEP) reported that European countries have chosen to meet the European Union (EU) legal requirement of including 10 percent of renewable energy in all transport fuels by 2020 by importing biofuels from places such as Indonesia, Brazil, and some African countries. One of the results, reported by The Guardian newspaper, is that the land acquired over the past decade for growing biofuel crops could have produced food for a billion people. This has led to increased food prices, leading to more people being unable to afford food and therefore going hungry.

Given the effect that biofuels are having on world hunger, do they at least have significant guaranteed environmental benefits? In recent years biofuels have attracted growing attention as a potential alternative to fossil fuels because biofuels are derived from plant sources such as sugarcane and animal sources such as manure. This makes them a candidate for alleviating the problem of energy security whilst simultaneously decreasing the emission of greenhouse gases. The first claim, that biofuels will help to increase energy security, is uncontroversial, given the diminishing supply of non-renewable fossil fuels. The second claim, that biofuels emit fewer greenhouse gases than fossil fuels, is more complex.

Carbon dioxide levels rise when the amount released into the atmosphere is less than what can be absorbed by natural processes, such as the ‘sequestration’ (storage) of carbon by plants. If we tried to make all our actions ‘carbon-neutral’, this would mean that every time we went for a drive and burnt a tank of fuel, we would calculate how much carbon dioxide had been released by that process and plant a sufficient number of trees to reabsorb that carbon. We would also instigate processes to clean up the other harmful greenhouse gases that are emitted. However hard we try to do this, the fact remains that the quantity of fossil fuels that human beings burn in power plants, for transport, and for their other needs, emits more carbon into the atmosphere than can ever be absorbed by plants and other natural processes. This is further exacerbated by deforestation.

Unlike fossil fuels, which when burnt release carbon that has been stored for millions of years, biofuels are assumed to be ‘carbon neutral’ because they only release carbon that was taken from the atmosphere during their growth. However, as the European Environment Agency (EEA) Scientific Committee pointed out in 2011, this assumption is not correct because

“it ignores the fact that using land to produce plants for energy typically means that this land is not producing plants for other purposes, including carbon otherwise sequestered. If bioenergy production replaces forests, reduces forest stocks or reduces forest growth, which would otherwise sequester more carbon, it can increase the atmospheric carbon concentration. If bioenergy crops displace food crops, this may lead to more hunger if crops are not replaced and lead to emissions from land-use change if they are.”

They then explain that because of this, it turns out that vehicles which run on biofuels can sometimes actually be more polluting than those which run on conventional petrol and diesel.

So the environmental benefits of biofuels are not guaranteed but rather are dependent on how and where the biofuel crops are grown. Taking this into account, plus the effect that they are having on the world’s food supplies, it would be wise to invest more research into other methods of achieving ‘clean’ transport. These include increasing the energy efficiency of vehicles or powering them by electric sources, or using ‘advanced biofuels’ which are derived from sustainable non-food sources such as organic waste or algae. People are adopting biofuels with good intentions, but, as always, it pays to thoroughly investigate the claimed benefits, and likewise to consider the possible indirect harmful effects on others before plunging in.

What are your experiences with biofuel usage or biofuel crops? Please leave a reply below.

Tracey Li is a Research and Communications Intern with INESAD.

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For your reference:

Doran, PT, Kendall Zimmerman, M 2009, ‘Examining the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change’, EoS, Transactions American Geophysical Union, Vol. 90, Issue 3, pp. 22-3. <http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2009EO030002/abstract?utmsource=twitterfeedutmmedium=twitter>

Vidal, J, The Guardian, 4 October 2012, Land acquired over past decade could have produced food for a billion people. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/2012/oct/04/land-deals-preventing-food-production>

European Environment Agency Scientific Committee, 15 September 2011, Opinion of the EEA Scientific Committee on Greenhouse Gas Accounting in Relation to Bioenergy<http://www.eea.europa.eu/about-us/governance/scientific-committee/sc-opinions/opinions-on-scientific-issues/sc-opinion-on-greenhouse-gas>

Institute for European Environmental Policy, Press Release November 8 2010, New Report Concludes that Indirect Impacts of EU Biofuel Policy will Create Major Environment Pressure. <http://www.ieep.eu/assets/728/IEEP_ILUC_press_release_final_for_circulation_1.pdf>

United States Global Change Research Program, Second National Climate Assessment (2009): Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States. <http://www.globalchange.gov/publications/reports/scientific-assessments/us-impacts/climate-change-impacts-by-sector/agriculture>

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