Manual Biofuels (Energy and the Environment)

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Ultimately, the final version of the EU reform sets an indicative 0. The Commission has signalled on several occasions its intention to gradually phase-out support — both policy and financial — for food-based biofuels. This has been communicated both in its communication on the climate and energy framework and also in the European strategy for low-emission mobility — released in July This proposal has been amended by the European Parliament and the Council, leading to the adoption of a final text in June The final deal removes the EU driver for crop-based biofuels and focuses the EU support on advanced fuels, such as advanced biofuels and renewable electricity.

The support to palm oil, identified as a high emitting biofuels, will also end in , although exemptions remain. Countries are no longer forced to use crop biofuels to meet high EU targets.

What are the environmental benefits of biofuels?

There is a dedicated target for the use of advanced fuels such as renewable electricity in transport and advanced biofuels made from wastes and residues. The RED has generated greater demand for biofuels and therefore for agricultural land. Carbon stores such as forests and peatlands are converted to crop fields, which results in a loss of biodiversity and increases in greenhouse gas emissions as sequestered carbon is liberated.

These indirect emissions are currently not accounted for when biofuels are considered for the RED. According to the Globiom study land expansion leads to 6.

Climate change weighs largely on the mind of policymakers trying to find fast ways to reduce carbon emissions and transition the transportation sector away from oil. Biofuels have the inherent advantage that they work with internal combustion engines already in most cars. This would allow an economy to transition to biofuels without the significant infrastructural change required for a new grid of plug-in stations for electric vehicles powered through solar energy or fuel cells.

Maybe it is this convenience that has created such a strong bias towards considering biofuels a carbon-free source. Almost all policymakers currently do so. The problem is that it's not true, and a double counting error made in almost all policy calculations overestimates the impact that biofuels use will have on carbon emissions. All plants and trees act as a huge carbon sink to take in CO 2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis - without this sink, our planet would be much hotter than it already is.

Burning biofuel for energy use does release CO 2 , but policymakers argue that this is balanced by the regrowth of the new biomass used for future biofuel production. The exact amount of CO 2 emitted by burning biofuels is reabsorbed by the crops being grown for the sole purpose of biofuel production. At first glance, this argument looks great, but the problem lies in a hidden assumption that the land used to grow biomass for biofuels would not have already been a carbon sink before it was used for biofuel production.

This carbon sink would have to be removed to grow the biomass for biofuels, which essentially creates a net gain of zero in terms of carbon sink size. When the biofuel is later burned as fuel, this would emit CO 2 to the atmosphere, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming in the same way as fossil fuels.

The role of biofuels in the future energy supply - Energy & Environmental Science (RSC Publishing)

The double counting comes from incorrectly counting the carbon sink from the natural woodlands already in existence on top of the carbon sink from the grown biomass read Reference 2 below for more details on this argument - it's not intuitive at first but well worth thinking about! The only way that biofuels could help reduce emissions is by reserving additional land not currently acting as a carbon sink to be used for biofuel production.

This is a possibility for specific types of biomass, for example, algae grown in ponds or liquids that do not absorb CO 2 alone, 3 but large-scale biofuel production this way seems unlikely. Any region of the Earth that does not already have trees or grasses growing, like deserts, would be far from ideal for growing biomass. And much of the other arable land is used for farming, which already takes up over half of the Earth's land , so finding room for more biomass would be difficult! This leads into the second problem with biofuels - they inevitably compete with land use for food production.

If arable land were used for biofuel production, this would only create pressures for other arable land to be used for farming, removing the carbon sinks through deforestation and leading to more CO 2 accumulation in the atmosphere. On top of this, research indicates that poor agricultural practices have degraded more than half of Africa's arable land, further constraining the potential land available for either food or biofuel production and increasing the competition between them.

We live on a finite planet, and there's only so much land to go around. Globally, there are about 12 million square miles of arable land, and we lose about 38, square miles per year to poor land management. From a land management perspective alone, it seems to be better policy to focus on renewable technologies like solar or wind whose land requirements do not overlap with food production. So biofuels are not actually carbon-free, and they dangerously compete with arable land for food production during a time when the global population will increase to 9.

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Is there no place for them? There may be applications in small doses. Certain forms of biofuel would provide a carbon-neutral source that doesn't compete with food production. For example, using residue from crops would be a carbon-free energy source because they're taken from already-existing plants used for food and are otherwise burned by farmers anyway. To this end, recent research has developed a method to ferment crop residue on-site, in the crop fields, greatly reducing transportation and manufacturing costs to have the same process done in large factories.

Municipal waste can also be used that would otherwise be combusted at landfill facilities, leading to carbon emissions.

Roz Naylor - Biofuels, food security and the environment

A company in Florida has just developed one of the first large-scale facilities to process such waste into ethanol, a significant achievement. Policymakers must acknowledge how to truly count carbon emissions from biofuels and focus on the inherent unsustainability of taking resources away from food production. The first steps include changing the accounting books and removing biofuels from renewable energy standards. Biofuels for Transport. Paris: International Energy Agency Publications Avoiding bioenergy competition for food crops and land. Installment 9 of Creating a Sustainable Food Future.

A realistic technology and engineering assessment of algae biofuel production. Energy Biosciences Institute Understanding the trade-offs between indirect land use change, hunger and poverty.


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No ordinary matter: conserving, restoring and enhancing Africa's soils. Montepelier Panel Report Rome: FAO On-farm solid state simultaneous saccharification and fermentation of whole crop forage rice in wrapped round bale for ethanol production.

chapter and author info

Biotechnology for Biofuels, 8 , 9 Soybean bus photo by Vincecate at Wikipedia. Arable land diagram from Wikipedia. Aa Aa Aa. The Biofuel Controversy.


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March 11, PM. Thanks Nick for the comment! I would agree that solar and wind will likely overshadow biofuels as the best alternative in the near future. Biofuels will prove to be a short-lived experiment.

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