Biofuels: The burning issue
The benefits of biofuels are in the balance. They've been touted as a "green gold" and embraced as a means to reduce vehicle carbon dioxide emissions. But on closer inspection, are they the green saviour they've been claimed to be and what are their wider impact on global food supplies and economic development?
Governments across the world have thrown their weight behind biofuels. In January 2007, President Bush announced that the U.S. will cut its gasoline use by 20 percent over the coming decade, replacing it largely with the biofuel ethanol. The EU is also committed to substituting 10 percent of its transport fuel with biofuels under plans to slash carbon emissions by 2020.
For developing countries biofuels are a chance to tap into a booming market. Indonesia has been increasing its palm oil production for biofuel export, while in Brazil biofuels accounts for 30 percent of the country's vehicle fuel supplies, and gas stations now have to supply either ethanol or gasoline with a 25 percent mix of ethanol.
CLEAN, BUT IS IT GREEN?
There are two main types of biofuels, bioethanol and biodiesel, which can be derived from a number of different biomass, such as sugar cane, rapeseed, wheat and some grasses. In theory they are carbon neutral fuels, as they absorb carbon dioxide when they are growing and release it when they are burnt as fuel.
However, biofuels are not a silver bullet to completely kill carbon emissions. The raw biomass need to be processed in fossil fuel-powered plants before being turned into a usable form, plus cultivating the crops takes fertilizers and pesticides, which can damage the local environment.
"People may have other reasons why they want to push biofuels, such as reducing the need for reliance on foreign energy, but they are not going to solve the CO2 problems and climate change," Dominick Spracklen, from the Institute of Atmospheric Science at Leeds University, told CNN.
He and colleague Renton Righelato suggest in a report published in the journal Science in August 2007, that in terms of absorbing CO2, land cleared for biocrops in countries such as Brazil and Indonesia would be better turned back into rainforest and in the short term more efficient fossil fuel use should be developed.
There is also the fear that a rising demand for energy crops could lead to greater deforestation, negating any off-setting of carbon dioxide emissions.
"When you clear the forest you have a big upfront emission of CO2. You would then have to grow the biocrop, in most cases for 50 to 100 years, to get back that carbon dioxide emitted," said Spraklen
UK environmental group Friends of the Earth contend that the growth in palm oil for use in bio-diesel - 90 percent of which is exported from Malaysia and Indonesia, according to figures from the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization- will lead to greater destruction of tropical rainforest. They claim that the palm oil industry, which covers more than just biofuels, has already been responsible for the destruction of 10 million hectares of forest.
For Brazil to produce 10 percent of its entire fuel consumption requires just three per cent of its agricultural land, according to a report by Worldwatch Institute. But for other countries, the numbers don't add up to self-sufficiency.
According to the International Energy Authority a 10 percent substitution of petrol and diesel fuel is estimated to require 43 percent and 38 percent of current cropland area in the U.S. and Europe, respectively.
The UK's National Farmer's Union contend that in the UK at least farmers can sustainably meet its government's target - five percent of total vehicle fuels as biofuel by 2010 - without reducing food crops.
In a July report it stated that UK wheat exports between 2003 and 2005 could have produced 1.2 billion litres of bio-ethanol, equal to five percent of the UK's annual fuel consumption.
FOOD vs. FUEL
According to U.N. figures, there are two billion hectares of degraded land that could be put into production for energy crops. Using this fallow land across the world might be able to off-set some worries over deforestation and also the other big issue currently surrounding biofuels; the food vs. fuel conflict.
It could mean the end of grain mountains, the result of overproduction and farming subsidies but will also raise prices of food.
"Much has been made of rising grain prices in the last few months, which may in part have been driven by biofuel crop production and suggests that the biofuels aren't being grown on land that is fallow," says Spracklen.
There have already been flashpoints attributed by some to the growing food vs. fuel debate. A rise in the price of corn flour in Mexico at the beginning of 2007, led to protests and the so-called "tortilla riots." More expensive flour was blamed on the U.S.'s switch to energy crops, reducing the exports to Mexico.
Some groups such as the NFU and Worldwatch Institute don't see the rising price of corn or food as necessarily a bad thing, but the chance for economic development.
In Mexico cheap U.S. imports made domestic farmers redundant, but now there are chances to not only reduced their dependency on imports but rekindle their agricultural sector.
"Decades of declining agricultural prices have been reversed thanks to the growing use of biofuels," says Christopher Flavin, president of the Worldwatch Institute research institution.
"Farmers in some of the poorest nations have been decimated by U.S. and European subsidies to crops such as corn, cotton, and sugar. Today's higher prices may allow them to sell their crops at a decent price."
Skeptics and pro-biofuel groups do agree on one point; better management of land and energy crops is needed to ensure better rewards for farmers and protect the environment.
"Biofuels can be an important part of the solution to climate change, but without rapid action from government to toughen up the standards, the opportunity, and we may only have one, will be lost," says Ed Matthews of Friends of the Earth.
"The first priority should be to ensure that the industry develops sustainably - so that the problems of an oil-based economy are not replaced by another socially and ecologically bankrupt industry," says Flavin.
What do you think? Have your say and join the debate.
It seems that many of us have joined the bandwagon without actually recognizing its consequences. It is extremely concerning that the land in which food crops are planted will be substituted by fuel crops, thus leading to food crises. Besides this, who is there to guarantee that these crops will help check pollution as they produce various gases on combustion? No one can dispose of the cumulative effects of the amount of these gases. Instead, focus should be targeted on harnessing energy from innocuous sources like water, light, wind, electricity etc.
It is understood that the people who obtain information of anything has the advantage. So, in my country as soon as biofuels came to matter, the very wealthy people associated by international companies acquired the best land. They destroyed them by cutting a lot of our rain forests and puppeteering our corrupted politicians to emit special laws to protect them.
There is more hype than action where alternative fuels are concerned. The railways, for instance, plumps for jatropha. Others say bagasse is a ready option, yet others go in for native versions of jatropha. What is forgotten is the economy of scales. Yes, there are arid lands where nothing grows. The incentive must be made available. Here is one field where deeds matter most.
Trying to find new ways for the production of energy that will be friendlier for the environment, indeed, is a good purpose. The problem is that we must not stop searching for a better and more efficient way. So, biofuels is a new technology with many problems that can lead to the a technology that will save the earth from the environmental destroy.
Biofuel is very important for developing countries that need to keep farmers making a decent living. When comparing biomass per square-meter, palm trees still stored huge percentage of Co2 in its tree truck and leaves, but with corn, sugar cane, and other roots plants you need to remove whole plant to harvest the needed parts. It is a needed part of energy production in this transition period before other expensive hydrogen, solar, wind-power energy sources come down to a cheaper rate that common folk can afford. Until then every crops goes better than paying the never ending extortion from the oil traders.
Biofuels must be waster product oriented, it should not jeopardise our food security, our water supplies or agro-production.
I do believe that biofuels will help small farmers improve their livelihood with this new development to combat poverty without compromising food over fuel in developing countries. Likewise, I do believe that with continuous research we can produce biofuels without using fossil fuel to run the plant which is so expensive and depleting countries' dollar reserves.
Let's be frank - the world didn't do its homework while it should and has let things come to this turning point. Maybe biofuels are not the silver bullet to the CO2 issue. But surely they are what the world has now to counter balance the end of petroleum era. It works; it uses the already existing infra structure; it is renewable; it is relatively abundant; it pollutes less and is within the reach to the vast majority of people. It will work most as just one of all energy solutions we'll have to find to cover our thirst for energy. It will keep this world going while the old formula - capital, science, people - is at work and that may come up with those cleaner and environmentally sound solutions this world so much pray for.
Lack of information and excess of business interest are the main problems to be solved. Everybody knows that biofuels based on vegetables oils are expensive, but from algae, they are ten times cheaper and can be produced at one hundred times more per square-foot of land and beside that, land used is not useful for agriculture: deserts and swamps. I consider we are now on the right way for replacing fossil fuels.
Biofuels are a scandal by rich countries to devastate more forests and arable land. Instead of furthering the destruction of our planet, we ought to be investing in true clean energy technology. Ultimately people hold the power, as they vote in a government that is clueless, they are to blame. That's you, Americans.
The government should be sensitized in this regard. By creating this awareness the government would understand the need to change its policies towards this issue of biofuels as an alternative to oil. Possibly these oil wells might get dried someday coupled with terrorism.
To some economies it's a threat, while an opportunity for others. Resources abound in most countries for the production of this human need. So, in a nutshell, a comparative advantage in the court for the one who's got all forms of strength to explore.
Biofuels may be technically interesting but they are not the solution that politicians and lobbyists pretend they are. Biofuels are misrepresented by these parties as the 'easy answer', people just change what they put in the tank and continue business as usual. However the numbers don't add up, as suggested in the CNN article above. In my opinion biofuels are creating a very harmful diversion to the development of real sustainable technologies - solar, wind, hydrogen. These technologies hold the key to global development and prosperity. I am confident that this will be borne out sooner or later. The alternative will undoubtedly bring about intolerable suffering through the food vs fuel dilemma, with increased competition and conflict for fossil fuel resources.
I think that judging from the way the global economy is going, more demand for energy is a must but are there enough fossil fuels to supply this development paradigm? That is where sustainability comes in. The current issue of global warming cannot be over-emphasized as it also poses a serious threat to our human existence. A global consensus has to be reached where we would look at the economic implications of our actions i.e the continuous use of fossil fuels versus biofuels and other cheap alternative sources of energy. We have to live the world a better place for our generations to come.
The key to solving our clean energy problem is to convert to using hydrogen. The earth has many sources of energy that are clean and readily available. The cost is the up front infrastructure. But that was true for fossil fuels also. It is the refusal of the political leaders and corporations refusal to give up any of their turf.
In China, biofuel is spread. Gas stations now supply gasoline with a 10 percent mix of ethanol. But the ethanol is derived from corn, an important crop in China. So I think it's dangerous to the safety of China's food provision.
It is apparent that without tough government standards, then we will be lost. And this is the case with Tanzania, and many other African countries. We have been caught unprepared. The demand for land to grow energy crops is enormous. Companies, notably foreign companies from Sweden to America are now grabbing huge tract of lands (in millions hectares) to grow bioenergy.
To make the matter worse, we don't have a sound policy to regulate the industry. They are simply justifying there move by saying most of these energy crops grow in marginal lands, which is useless in other words. To me this is just balderdash. Why don't they go to Sahara desert and grow whatever they want to grow? Sahara desert is a marginal land, so I presume it is suitable for growing energy crop.
Here in Tanzania, there is a company that acquired Kapunga Rice Farm from the Government, a move that was intended to maximize production of rice and thus stabilize food security in the country. I was floored to learn that, instead of growing rice, that company has announced that it will grow Jatropha trees for biodiesel production in 50000 hectares as a pilot project. And how can you have a pilot project in 50,000 hectares? It is envisaged that the project will have the serious impact to the catchments/watershed that feed the Great Ruaha River and thousands of people downstream. Before we go further on the bioenergy, we need to recess and conduct a thorough analysis on its sustainability. No one will be ready to grow coffee while he can generate more profit by growing Jatropha? The food security is at stake.
Unless biofuels are being grown in a desert, they are not carbon neutral. To grow a field of sugar cane or any other biofuel, you must first destroy the forest that was previously there - a forest was already absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. Does an acre of sugar cane absorb as much carbon dioxide as an acre of rain forest? I doubt it. And what about the animal life that once existed in that forest? And what about the soil erosion? Biofuels are being promoted as "green", but in reality they are an environmental disaster that is destroying the precious few pockets of natural forest that still exist in the world.
Where can someone find the combined solution of economical, safe and future-orientated energy for normal family homes and normal buildings with a normal number of flats? I am speaking of an ideal selection which is the answer of not being any more dependant on oil, gas and electricity supply of any country and companies. I think this what we need most and has the best future for industry and consumer.
I think it is very important to change from an oil-based economy as soon as possible, but it is equally as important to fully research and understand the gains and implications before starting new policy. How efficient is bio-diesel if it takes so much water (which will soon be in shorter supply) and energy to produce? What about looking at other possible sources of fuel? And are there any?
Both a new concept and approach are needed, for example, is it a good idea to spend a lot of biofuels when we could also be reducing the dependence of people on cars?
Bio-fuels are net energy losers. The fossil fuel inputs to grow and process the bio-fuel are greater than the energy released. We should abandon any thought of heavily processed biological liquid fuel to run transport on. The only sustainable bio-fuel is wood and even that only for personal heating and domestic needs, not on the industrial scale.
Biodiesel has opened a new sector in the economy but won't solve the greenhouse problem. The sheer amount of fuel and energy demand that is in dire need of a substitute is enormous. Sacrificing our already growing food demand to reduce the high greenhouse gas emissions by a few percent will just slow down the process until the demand increases. And even then the benefit of biofuels will equal normal fuels in terms of obtaining it.
We should pay more attention to the resources that are abundant in nature: water, wind and above all solar power. Instead of spending billions on slowing down greenhouse gas emissions, we could spend it on total elimination of it by drastically increasing the research in all three fields.
If we keep dismissing or neglecting potential options to greenhouse gas elimination with the stock market as the judge, I seriously doubt that we will make it far into this millennium because changing climate is one thing, but the impact on flora and fauna is far more deadly since we need it to survive at all.
The fact that underdeveloped countries are battling over energy supplies they will keep going for biocrops for their energy needs.