A Green Disguise of Biofuels

At a glance, biofuels seem to be a clean energy source with lower GHG emissions and massive potentials across the world. Plus, they are cost-competitive with fossil fuels. Expansion of the use of biofuels has significantly contributed to rural employment and energy security. However, serious criticism about biofuels and other bioenergy has surfaced in the recent years; for example, in 2011, the science committee of the EU’s environment agency gave a warning that there is an “accounting error” regarding bioenergy, and the consequences would be grave for the Earth’s forests and climate[1].

What is the problem, then? First of all, growing crops for biofuels requires large land. Land clearance and deforestration not only leads to threats to biodiversity, but also so-called ‘indirect land use changes’; enormous natural storages for carbon such as forests, wetlands and grasslands get destroyed accordingly. Plants grow back, of course, but the time frame for replacement could be up to centuries. Another major issue involves a life-cycle analysis of biofuels. Emission levels of biofuels may be lower than fossil fuels, but other factors should be taken into account such as NO emissions from crop residues or emissions associated with the use of fertilizers. In addition, growing crops for biofuels results in rivalry of food and water use. Finally, despite the generally perceived conception that biofuels are cheap, costs still matter, especially in the aviation sector. According to a report jointly released by the French Académie des Technologies and Académie de l’Air et de l’Espace, “biofuels intrinsically cost more to make than a fossil fuel, due to the expense associated with renewal costs, or the growth of the plant[2].”

The current policies around the world generally favor biofuels, backed by proponents who say biofuels are a green energy source. Rather than blindly spending money on the potential polluter, policymakers should have a far more cautious perspective. For example, there is a need for mandatory LCA for all biomass projects, as well as heavier funding for research efforts on second-generation biofuels. Fortunately, there are signals that progress is being made; a study conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the University of California found that “biofuels produced from switchgrass and post-harvest corn waste could significantly reduce the emissions that contribute to climate change[3].” Also, a research team at Duke University recently won a $5.2 million U.S. Department of Energy grant to explore ways of making algae a cost efficient fuel source. If these efforts continue, the landscape of biofuels might become much greener than it is currently thought to be.

[1] John Upton, Nov 3 2015, Renewable energy doesn’t mean clean energy: the European accounting error that’s warming the planet (retrieved from http://www.salon.com/2015/11/03/pulp_fiction_the_european_accounting_error_thats_warming_the_planet_partner/)

[2] https://www.ainonline.com/aviation-news/air-transport/2015-10-14/viability-aviation-biofuels-remains-distant-say-experts

[3] http://www.ewg.org/research/better-biofuels-ahead

[4] Image source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7472532.stm

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