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Are biofuels better for the environment?

By Rachel England Monday 28 October 2013

Just five years ago, biofuels were billed as the obvious saviour of planet Earth. This ‘clean, green’ fuel would do away with the nasty pollution caused by traditional energy sources, plus all-but completely negate the need to mine fossil fuels and other finite, natural resources. Fantastic, right? Except it’s not quite turned out like that.

Biofuels

Biofuels are fuels made from living things, or the waste they produce. This includes wood or wood chippings, biogas (methane) from animal excrement, and ethanol, diesel or other liquid fuels made from processing plant material (usually crops such as corn, sugarcane and rapeseed). It’s this latter category (now known as first-generation biofuels) that heralded the most hope for green energy, but it’s also the category causing the most controversy.

Now, in theory these biofuels are a great idea. They’re derived from renewable sources, and according to a study from Switzerland, they create less greenhouse gas emissions than petroleum-based fuels. So a big tick in the green box, there, but then it starts to go downhill.

The main problem is that these biofuels require a large amount of crops to produce, so a lot of land around the world is being used to grow crops for fuel, rather than food. One statistic that’s used a lot is that it takes the same amount of grain to produce enough biofuel to fill a UK family’s car one time as it does to feed a child for nearly seven months. And since it’s more lucrative for farmers to sell their crops to biofuel companies than to food producers, this ‘green fuel’ is helping to push up the costs of grain, adding to the woes of already poverty-stricken nations.

Plus, in heavy biofuel-producing countries such as Brazil, it’s not uncommon for huge swathes of rainforest to be cut down to make space for crops and farmland, specifically for the purpose of creating biofuel. Not great for the environment, but then others argue that the production of biofuels is making an important contribution to employment and the economy.

There are valid arguments for and against, but so divided are experts as to the real cost-benefit of biofuels that European governments aren’t too sure how to proceed with them, either. Back in September, European Parliament voted on the future of biofuels in transport fuel, and an incredibly close majority voted in favour of a cap of 6% on the contribution of biofuels to Europe’s renewable transport energy targets. The outcome was dubbed a ‘desperately weak compromise’, with pro groups claiming a cap would curtail jobs and renewable investment, and anti groups claiming that the increase from 4.5% to 6% would simply cause even more environmental problems.

Despite the controversy surrounding biofuels, they only account for less than 2% of the world’s global liquid food supply – but we shouldn’t write them off yet. Researchers claim that as much as 30% of the world’s transportation fuels could come from so-called ‘second-generation’ biofuels – something that the European Parliament vote allowed a 2.5% target for.

These biofuels are made from non-food sources such as agricultural waste, sewage and algae, so they don’t require the huge amounts of farmland to produce as first-generation biofuels do – it’s these which may help even the biofuels playing field.

But they’re not without their own challenges. While second-gen biofuels might not require farmland, producing enough algae to create biofuel still requires very large surfaces of water, and open pools of water used in this way pose several health and safety dilemmas. Plus, these types of biofuel are still relatively new, and need to be developed further before they can compete with the comparative efficiency of first-gen fuels.

Researchers in Brazil are already hard at work on the challenge, with the world’s first industrial-sized seaweed biofuel plant set to open later this year. The facility in the north-eastern state of Pernambuco aims to produce 1.2 million litres of algae-based biofuel a year in upright bioreactors (therefore avoiding huge surface area demands), and will reuse the CO2 emitted by the plant in its photosynthesis process (thereby boosting its green credentials).

So, are biofuels a good thing or not? The whole debate is one riddled with controversy and conflicting evidence, and there’s no clear cut answer. However, most would agree that the principle of biofuels – that is, renewable, green fuel – is a very positive and desperately-needed innovation. We just haven’t gotten the formula right yet.

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