The trouble with biofuels

G Magazine

Biofuels were once heralded as the answer to climate change, then demonised as making it worse. The truth is somewher in between.


Canola can be used as a biofuel.

Credit: istockphoto

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Across the world, biofuel projects have been launched and praised as key players in the fight to cut emissions of greenhouse gases.

Given that biofuels merely recirculate carbon dioxide, they should trigger no increase in the atmosphere's carbon burden - unlike oil, petrol and other fossil fuels. Biofuels looked like a clear climate-change winner.

In the United States, the planting of corn (or maize as it is known) to make bioethanol has become a major enterprise following Congress's decision that 15 billion gallons (nearly 57 billion litres) should be made by 2016 for use in America's cars and trucks.

Similarly, a European Union directive committed its member nations to ensuring that 5.75 per cent of their petrol and diesel comes from renewable sources by 2010.

At the same time, the Australian government ruled that 350 million litres of biofuel was to be manufactured, and used by transport, also by 2010.

A bright new future for farming - not as a source of food but as a font of replacement fuels for cars and trucks - was dawning.

But in just over a year, this rosy picture has been transformed.

The future for biofuels looks to be anything but glittering today. Reports from scientists, government panels and green groups have painted them, not as the saviours of our planet, but as a new danger to it.

Biofuels, they say, will increase emissions of carbon dioxide; run the risk of destroying Third World economies; and - by using land that would otherwise be used for food production - lead to widespread hunger in developing countries.

Far from being the saviour of the world, biofuels have begun to look like a new environmental curse.

The Evidence

Is this new re-assessment fair, however? More to the point, how can a source of energy be revered as a key fighter against climate change one moment and the next find itself labelled a greenhouse villain? What scientific evidence has produced this backlash?

In fact, several key studies have led to this re-evaluation, such as the study published in the prestigious journal, Science, in February 2008 by Joe Fargione, of the international conservation group, The Nature Conservancy. It showed that when rainforests, peatland, savannah or grassland are ploughed to prepare for crop planting, either for food or for fuel, massive amounts of carbon dioxide are released.

"People don't realise it, but soil is an extremely effective store of carbon dioxide and helps to protect our atmosphere," says Fargione.

For example, grasslands - like those of the American Mid-West - contain tiny fragments of decaying plants have been accumulating in the soil since the last Ice Age. When you plough up that land and burn its grass, in preparation for planting crops, you release that repository of carbon.

So, if you sow biofuel crops on virgin land, you start off by doing the worst possible thing you could to the atmosphere: you add significantly to its carbon content.

"For every unit of carbon you save in a year by growing a biofuel crop on an acre of new farm land, you will release 93 times that carbon by the simple act of ploughing it up," says Fargione.

Thus in South and North Dakota and Minnesota, classic American grassland states, more than 200,000 hectares of prime native land have been converted to farmland, mostly for growing biofuel crops, since 2000 - with an inevitable surge of carbon dioxide being put into the atmosphere: around 27 million tonnes, according to Fargione.

For good measure, the problem is increased because biofuel crops are often fertilised with chemicals derived from the petrochemical industry, in other words from fossil fuel sources. Again, this increases outputs of carbon dioxide.

As a result of findings like these, calls for cuts in biofuel production have begun to spread throughout the world, although in America - where they are grown to stimulate rural economies and reduce US reliance on oil imports rather than to combat climate change - experts say there is little chance of an immediate policy change.

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.

Similarly, the United Nations' independent food expert, Jean Ziegler, has called for a five-year moratorium on all initiatives to develop biofuels to avert what he says might be "horrible" food shortages.

Massive production of biofuels is "a crime against humanity" because of its impact on global food prices, said Ziegler in Berlin in mid-April.

And in March, Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), says the world should now proceed with extreme caution when it comes to biofuels.

"We should be very, very careful about coming up with biofuel solutions that have major impact on production of food grains and may have an implication for overall food security," he said.

A Bad Rap

But is all this vilification fair? Some projects may threaten wildlife and could increase carbon dioxide emissions, but does that mean that biofuels must be completely rejected?

Many renewable energy experts insist that the answer is a definite no.

"The recent biofuels debate has been very poor and alarmist," says chemist Richard Templer, director of the Porter Institute, which was recently set up at Imperial College, London to research biofuel development.

"There has been no attempt to differentiate the various biological technologies coming on line. People don't realise that current first generation biofuels involve nothing more complex than that involved in rum-making. So yes, there are going to be problems, but we should also note there are many improvements in the pipeline. We should be judging biofuels on the potential of these."

The quality of the recent biofuel debate also infuriates Morris Lyda who began that pioneering biodiesel project in Sydney two years ago.

"We have known all about the advantages and disadvantages of biofuels for decades," he says. "So why has tremendous push of bad publicity appeared over the past 12 months? I think vested interests are getting worried and want biofuels put in their place. It is ridiculous."

Second Generation

Using vegetable oils to run diesel plants is now being encouraged in many other isolated parts of the world by groups such as the Porter Institute: in Tuvalu and in countries such as Malawi and Zambia where scientists are working on projects that will use groundnut (peanut) oil to provide electricity.

But the potential for biofuels goes beyond their opportunistic use in remote places, say enthusiasts. They point to new generations which pose far less of a climatic threat than current versions, which don't require the carbon dioxide-intense practices of growing of other crops.

First-generation biofuels use easily accessed starches as their basic ingredient. But now, scientists are working on ways to ferment ethanol from tougher ingredients: corn husks, grasses and other inedible forms of vegetation high in cellulose, the sturdy material found in stalks and leaves.

The trick is to break down a plant's lignin, an organic polymer which binds to cellulose, the sturdy material that helps plants keep their shape.

Cellulose can be broken down and used as an ingredient for fermenting, but the process is complex, requiring an assortment of enzymes. More than 80 research centres in Australia and overseas are now testing new enzymes that would thus be able to break down stubble, corn stover (the leaves and stalk left after harvest), wood chips and other agricultural waste and help release sugars which would otherwise be unavailable for fermenting.

Researchers at Australia's Monash University have developed a chemical process, called Furafuel, that turns agricultural waste - such as forest thinnings, crop residues, waste paper, and garden waste which are normally dumped in landfill or burned - into biofuel, either ethanol or biodiesel.

"We've been able to create a concentrated biocrude which is much more stable than that achieved elsewhere in the world," says Steven Loffler, senior researcher at Australia's national science agency, the CSIRO.

"By using waste, our Furafuel technology overcomes the food-versus-fuel debate, which surrounds biofuels generated from grains, corn and sugar."

Thus, biofuels could soon be made from plants that thrive in marginal farmland, negating the need to displace food crops.

Of course, such scenarios are a long way from the image of golden crops swaying in the sun ready to provide carbon-neutral fuels for cars being driven in the streets.

The Horizon

However, such ideas clearly show that biofuels still have a role to play in the fight against climate change. It is a point summed up in a recent report, Sustainable biofuels: prospects and challenges, by the Royal Society in Britain.

"Biofuels are one of the few technologies currently available that have the potential to displace oil. There are real opportunities to develop efficient biofuel supply chains that can deliver substantial greenhouse gas savings," the report states.

In particular, future biofuels produced from the ligno-cellulose in dedicated energy crops, such as perennial grasses, and from forestry, the co-products from food production, and domestic vegetable waste are likely to be of special value, it concludes.

It is a point backed by a recent CSIRO report on biodiesel's potential in Australia. A study by biofuel expert Tom Beer found that "biodiesel has the potential to reduce emissions from the transport industry, which is the third largest producer of greenhouse gases in Australia, after power generation and agriculture."

Care needs to be taken about sources, particularly those involving palm oil from plantation, Beer admits. Nevertheless, with some extra research and commitment, it is clear that biofuels could still end up playing a very important role in helping to save our planet, he concludes.

For Morris Lyda and his Biodiesel Station, that is eminently sensible news.

"It is clear fossil fuels are soon going to dry up. We need alternatives and biofuels made from second generation processes that use agricultural waste as their basic ingredients are clearly the best prospect that we have. Biofuels offer great potential. They are our future, quite frankly."