Monday, 20 June 2011

Biofuels - Part 2 - The Bad

BioFuels - Part 1 - The Good
BioFuels - Part 2 - The Bad
BioFuels - Part 3 - The Actions

Whilst Part 1 of this post looks at some of the positives of biofuel generation, Part 2 (which you are reading) looks at some of the downsides. . .

One aspect of Biofuel production that needs to be borne in mind is that it can be easy for production of the crop feedstocks to take up land that was previously used to produce crops for food, or to result in clearances of natural forest to make way for feedstock plantations. Occurrences of this latter phenomena have been widely (reported).BFTF also found a report from the International Energy Authority (IEA) which, with charming optimism, suggests a "roadmap" that may result in biofuels comprising some 28% of transports liquid fuel needs by 2050.

The 2008 Gallagher report, commissioned by the government, looked specifically at the indirect effects of biofuel production (i.e. if biofuels are grown insted of crops, where are the crops grown?). Although data was limited, the report concluded that "there is a future for a sustainable biofuels industry but that feedstock production must avoid agricultural land that would otherwise be used for food production. This is because the displacement of existing agricultural production, due to biofuel demand, is accelerating land-use change and, if left unchecked, will reduce biodiversity and may even cause greenhouse gas emissions rather than savings."

In order to ensure that biofuels were truly from sustainable sources, Gallagher recommended that the rate of biofuel introduction should be slowed down. Care also needs to be taken with second generation technologies as some of these require larger areas of land to produce a unit of fuel, and thus have an increased risk of displacing food production to land that was previously not cultivated.

Somewhat worryingly, the report mentioned that "feedstock for biofuel occupies just 1% of cropland but the rising world population, changing diets and demand for biofuels are estimated to increase demand for cropland by between 17% and 44% by 2020. However, the balance of evidence indicates there will be sufficient appropriate land available to 2020 to meet this demand." Recognising that sustainability criteria need to be Europe wide, the report recommends that strong, mandatory, sustainability criteria should be included in the 011/2012 EU Renewable Energy Directive

Taking a different perspective, Action Aid argue, that C02 reductions can be achieved in the transport sector without recourse to industrial biofuels. They point out that, amongst other proposed measures, doubling the fuel efficiency of new cars would result in a saving of 12 million tonnes of CO2 emissions per year whilst increasing the percentage of journeys by foot (from 24 to 36%) and bike (1.5 to 15%) would save some 7 million tonnes per year. This is compared to the 2.5million tonnes a year that the current biofuels policy will achieve.

Whilst some of the changes suggested by ActionAid would require significant changes in peoples behaviour (good luck with getting people to leave their cars at home one day a week, for example), the paper does, as mentioned in Part 1 of this post, describe how animal and food wastes could provide very significant amounts of methane (although it is not clear what proportion would be food waste and whether this would be easier or more difficult to collect than the animal waste.)

A bright spot on the horizon mentioned in Part1 of this post was biofuels derived from algae - but even here there are issues. Commercial success is not guaranteed, as shown by the case of US start-up GreenFuels Technologies who went bust in 2008 after difficulties in maintaining its algae growth chambers at its Arizona pilot plant. In addition, there are question marks over whether large industrial plants will show the same performance seen in initial lab and pilot plant trials.

In the UK, the Carbon Trust was funding a "Algae Biofuels challenge" which aimed to "find a winning formula for cultivating 70 billion litres of algae biofuel a year by 2030" - but funding for this has recently been cut completely.

Some reassurance can be found in a statement from Norman Baker, the (deep breath) Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport, who wrote in 2010 that " Biofuels have an important role to play in efforts to tackle climate change, particularly where there is no viable alternative fuel on the horizon, as is the case with aviation and HGVs. In addition, they also have a role to play in promoting the security of energy supply. But we firmly believe that the
potential carbon benefits of biofuels can only be realised if they are produced in a sustainable way", going on to say "In particular, my Department takes the issue of indirect land use change seriously. . . I have written to the EU Energy, Environment and Climate Commissioners to impress on them the need for an
adequate and robust solution".

So there you have it. It's complicated. This post has only been able to scratch at the surface of just a few of the issues involved.

So what to do now? Well, BFTF being BFTF, will be asking some questions and doing some nudging, as you can see in Part 3.

Government Policy and Research on Biofuels

Wikipedia article on BioFuels in Brazil

LACE (lignocellulosic conversion to ethanol) Project

Sustainable Bioenergy Research Centre

Guardian Article on the deforestation caused by biofuels

IEA Biofuels reports

Action Aid list of recent reports

Policy Statement from the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport

Dr Ibbett can be contacted at:

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