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All Biofuels Are Not Green

By Countercurrents.org

02 October, 2012

A recent study shows biofuels from deforested areas usually emit more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels. This also applies to indirect land usage changes if existing agricultural land is used for the first time for biofuel production and, as a consequence, forested areas have to be cleared in order to maintain the existing foodstuff or animal feed production.

Citing a new study Bio Fuel Daily reported [1]:

The study led by Empa gives an up-to-date picture of the ecobalance of various biofuels and their production processes. Only a few are overall more environmentally friendly than petrol.

In recent years, the demand for supposedly environmentally friendly biofuels has resulted in the increased cultivation of so-called energy plants and innovative production methods for the second generation of biofuels have been developed. Ecobalance experts have also refined and developed methods for environmental assessment.

Since biofuels stem predominantly from agricultural products, the, in part, controversial discussion about their environmental sustainability revolves principally around whether the production of biofuels is defensible from an ecological viewpoint or whether there are possible negative effects, for example on the supply of foodstuff in times of drought, or whether eutrophication of arable land occurs.

In order to be able to give a well-informed response, Empa, on behalf of the Department of Energy (BFA) and in collaboration with the research institute Agroscope Reckenholz-Tanikon (ART), and the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI), has updated the ecobalance of numerous biofuels, including their production chains. Compared with the first worldwide ecobalance study of its kind in 2007, also carried out by Empa, the team, led by Empa researcher Rainer Zah, included both innovative energy plants and manufacturing processes and also updated assessment methods.

However, despite a more extensive data set and up-to-date methods, Empa comes to the same conclusion as the study in 2007: many biofuels based on agricultural products indeed do help to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, but lead to other environmental pollution, such as too much acid in the soil and polluted (over-fertilized) lakes and rivers.

"Most biofuels therefore just deflect the environmental impact: fewer greenhouse gases, thus more growth-related pollution for land used for agriculture", says Zah. This results in only a few biofuels having an overall better ecobalance than petrol, especially biogas from residues and waste materials, which - depending on the source material - impact on the environment up to half as much as petrol.

And within the biofuel group, ethanol-based fuels tend to have a better ecobalance than those with an oil base; however, the results are very much dependent on the individual method of manufacture and the technology.

The new methodology also allowed Zah and his colleagues to highlight the "weaknesses" of the earlier study. The researchers in 2007 underestimated the effects of changes to natural areas on the greenhouse gas balance, for example the deforestation of the rain forest.

The current study now shows that biofuels from deforested areas usually emit more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels. This also applies to indirect land usage changes if existing agricultural land is used for the first time for biofuel production and, as a consequence, forested areas have to be cleared in order to maintain the existing foodstuff or animal feed production.

On the other hand, positive effects can be achieved if energy plant cultivation increases the carbon content of the soil, for example via the cultivation of oil palms on unused grazing land in Columbia or via jatropha plantations in India and eastern Africa, making deserted land arable again.

"Despite this, you can't speak in general terms of Jatropha as being a 'wonder plant', as its ecobalance is very much dependent on the agricultural practices at the site in question and the land's previous use", says Zah. Each (new) biofuel must therefore be examined separately and in detail.

The study's general recommendations include:

Clearing woodland and bush areas in order to develop energy plants is to be avoided; this worsens the greenhouse gas balance considerably, which has a distinctly greater impact on the environment.

If agricultural land is used for biofuel production, indirect change of land use should be avoided as far as possible, for example, by making it compulsory to provide evidence that any displaced production does not have indirect effects as a result of intensification.

The use of land and forestry residues such as straw, garden and timber waste for energy purposes is advantageous, but only if these are not used in other ways or if their extraction from their natural cycle does not reduce the fertility of the soil and the bio-diversity.

A Brussels datelined AFP report was cited by Bio Fuel Daily [2] on Sept. 17, 2012 that informed:

Although the European Commission rejected charges that EU biofuel policy was contributing to soaring food prices but confirmed that it will trim its targets for their use.

"It is wrong to believe that we are pushing food-based biofuels," Gunther Oettinger and Connie Hedegaard, Commissioners for Energy and Climate Change, said in a statement.

"In our upcoming proposal ... we do exactly the contrary: We limit them to the current consumption level, that is 5.0 percent up to 2020," they said.

For post 2020, "our clear preferences are biofuels produced from non-food feedstocks, like waste or agricultural residues such as straw.

"These new type of biofuels are not in competition with food, nor do they require additional land. We are pushing biofuels that help us cut substantial CO2 emissions, do not compete with food and are sustainable and green at the same time."

A draft proposal in early-September noted that some biofuel production was failing to deliver hoped-for reductions in greenhouse gases because changing land use to grow crops for energy had its own adverse impact on emissions.

Accordingly, it suggested that by 2020 biofuels should account for 5.0 percent of transport sector energy use, up only from the current 4.5 percent.

The balance of the 2020 transport target would be met by other renewables, with the draft saying the EU should "encourage a greater market penetration of advanced (low-Indirect Land Use Change) biofuels."

The EU statement said the balance of the 10 percent target would be accounted for by "biofuels produced from waste and residues."

The Oxfam criticized the EU statement as failing to address the core problems in the bloc's biofuel policy.

"At a time of high and volatile food prices it is disappointing that EU ministers have not publicly questioned Europe 's biofuels policy, which is undermining poor communities' right to food and land," said Natalia Alonso the head of Oxfam's EU office.

"We cannot continue to burn food in our petrol tanks while poor families go hungry. Biofuels mandates must be dropped now and taken off the table for the future."

In another report [3] Bio Fuel Daily said:

France would reconsider its plans to further develop the use of biofuel, once seen as a potential source of cheap alternative energy but now blamed for soaring food prices.

France 's targets for incorporating biofuel elements into traditional fuel, "which could result in large quantities of agricultural products being diverted from food use, should be put up for discussion", Agriculture Minister Stephane Le Foll said.

He made the comment in a report on the new Socialist government's action plan for agriculture. That plan calls for a seven percent cap on the incorporation into traditional fuel of so-called first generation biofuel, which is made from the sugars and oils found in arable crops.

This should not have any effect on the "E10" biofuel available at filling stations in France , which contains up to 10 percent ethanol.

France plans to reach the 10 percent EU target of renewable energy in fuel by boosting the use of second-generation biofuels, which are made from crop residues, waste, algae or woody material, according to the action plan.

Biofuels have also been repeatedly identified as a factor in rising prices for vegetable oils, corn, soja and cereals.

Source :

[1] “Most biofuels are not green”, Zurich , SPX, Sept. 25, 2012, http://www.biofueldaily.com/reports/Most_biofuels_are_not_green_999.html

[2] “EU confirms change in biofuel targets”, http://www.biofueldaily.com/reports/EU_confirms_change_in_biofuel_targets_999.html

[3] “ France reconsiders plans to boost biofuel use”, AFP , Sept. 12, 2012 http://www.biofueldaily.com/reports/France_reconsiders_plans_to_boost_biofuel_use_999.html








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