Feature

The trouble with biofuels

Canola

Canola can be used as a biofuel.

Credit: istockphoto

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Displacing good crops

The problem does not disappear if you plant biofuel sugarcane or corn on land used for agriculture already - in other words, on fields that have already had their natural carbon content released into the atmosphere by ploughing.

Economics researcher Tim Searchinger, of Princeton University, has shown that if more land in the developed world is used for biofuels, then less is available for food crops such as wheat or soya (often used as cattle feed). Their prices rise and become more attractive to farmers in developing countries, leading to the clearing of new lands there.

"Biofuel advocates simply overlooked the fact that land is a finite resource," says Searchinger. "If you stop planting normal crops like wheat or soya so you can grow crops for fuel, then you have to find land somewhere else for growing food. When you do that, of course, you have to plough up new ground and so release more carbon dioxide."

In this way, rainforests, savannahs and other wild places are being destroyed at an increasing rate.

One example is provided by developers who are preparing to plough up 50,000 acres of wetland on the Tana River Delta in Kenya to plant sugarcane and build ethanol plants. The area is home to hippos, elephants, lions and crocodiles as well as 22 species of waterbird, including the endangered Basra reed warbler and the Tana River cisticola.

All are now threatened by biofuel technology.

Similarly, palm plantations have spread across Indonesia and Malaysia where oil production has risen from 5 million tonnes in 1976 to 34 million in 2006. The trees (Elaeis guineensis) produce oil that is highly prized for cooking but is now valued as a biofuel in Europe, China and India.

Once the methadone that would help us beat our fossil fuel addiction, biofuels now appear to be worse than our original affliction - hence all that global antipathy. When politicians gathered for the EU summit last year to discuss renewable energy targets, a total of 230 organisations and prominent individuals from across the world, urged European politicians to cut back its biofuel targets.

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