Breaking down biofuels

Green Lifestyle magazine

Is this oil alternative a green saviour or red herring?


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Biofuels seem like an exciting alternative to oil. They come from renewable sources and appear a climate friendlier option. But there is more to the story...

Biofuels are a renewable alternative to fossil fuels like oil and coal. Typically created from agricultural crops such as corn and sugar, they are produced through fermentation to create a type of alcohol that can be burnt for energy. Chances are, when you fill up at your local petrol station you’re using a type of biofuel. E10 fuel is, in fact, made using 10 per cent ethanol – a type of biofuel. But while biofuels are renewable, that doesn’t automatically make them good.

“Biofuels are fuelling hunger as much as they are cars,” says Archie Law, Executive Director of anti-poverty advocacy group ActionAid. “As biofuel use has increased, land that used to grow crops for food, is now being used to grow crops for fuel.”

That’s a big problem, in a world where over 900 million people go to bed hungry every night. “Because biofuels are creating increased demand for crops like corn, wheat and sugar, the prices of these basic foods are rising,” says Law.

According to the CSIRO, biofuels used in Australia are not contributing to land grabbing or increased food prices, as they are created using food waste and not from crops specifically grown for biofuels. This is only possible, however, because of Australia’s relatively low demand for biofuels to date. It’s a different picture in other parts of the world, with large tracts of land in Africa and South America set aside for the growth of biofuel crops destined to fuel cars in the US and Europe.

Even some biofuel opponents argue these fuels are no more environmentally-friendly than others, despite being renewable. “There’s plenty of research that shows the greenhouse gases created by growing, processing and transporting biofuels can exceed emissions from fossil fuels,” says Law.

Virgin is one of the main global companies touting the benefits of biofuels. It plans to source five per cent of its jet fuel from biofuels by 2020. Virgin Australia says it is committed to endorsing sustainable practices and is part of a consortium looking at mallee eucalyptus trees as feedstock in Western Australia. “The trees are grown in rows between wheat fields, providing biodiversity benefits and helping to reduce salinity in the soil. It enhances the food production system while providing a feedstock for biofuel production,” a Virgin Australia spokesperson told Green Lifestyle.