April 19, 2010
Biofuels have been a hotly contested issue for a number of years. They are at the top of the European Union’s agenda at the moment after the European Commission was sued by four environmental NGOs for muffling evidence on biofuels’ sustainability last month.
Some leaked documents suggest that turning peatlands into palm plantations to produce biofuels would get a green light under the new sustainability criteria to be presented by the EU executive later this year, which has outraged environmental groups.
Biofuels first made headlines in 2007/2008, when they were widely blamed for the rising food prices at the time, as they diverted cultivated land from growing crops. Later analysis, however, indicated that a number of causes – namely an unprecedented drought in Australia, increasing meat consumption in developing countries and rising oil prices – were equally responsible.
Biofuels can indeed contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and thus mitigating climate change, to enhancing energy security and to stimulating innovation and jobs. Transport is responsible for more than 20% of all carbon emissions and accounts for the vast majority of oil exports in the EU, therefore the Commission’s keenness to promote biofuels is understandable. In its Renewable Energy Directive, it has set the target of 10% of road transport fuel coming from renewable sources by 2020. According to the latest Commission report, biofuels can contribute up to 5.6% without compromising global biodiversity.
But how sustainable are biofuels? The so-called ‘first generation’ biofuels, or bioethanol and biodiesel widely used in the US and Europe today, represent considerable environmental risks through direct and indirect land-use change. Because soils and plants are the largest carbon sinks (stores) in our biosystem, converting forests, peat and grasslands into croplands to grow biofuels would release vast amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. The logic is simple: the larger the demand for biofuels, the more land is needed to grow them (and the less land is available for rapidly increasing global food demands).
Moreover, taking into account that deforestation and farming practices are already responsible for about a fifth of all carbon emissions, the picture becomes rather grim. One of the biggest worries is rainforests: with more Europeans producing biodiesel from rapeseed oil, many rainforests are felled to create palm oil plantations across Indonesia and Malaysia to fill this gap in food demand. A case in point is the recent study by Tim Searchinger from Purdue University in the US, which suggests that greenhouse gas emissions from bioethanol are higher than those from fossil fuels if the full life-cycle analysis is applied. The negative impacts on biodiversity and water resources need also be considered.
The problem might be partly solved by so-called ‘second generation’ biofuels. These include a variety of non-crop feedstocks, such as waste biomass, wood, stalks, switchgrass, etc. They offer a number of advantages compared to the ‘first generation’. Namely, they are often grown on land that is unsuitable for food crops, can be planted on degradable lands to invigorate their fertility and requires less fertilisers. But more importantly, they provide much higher fuel yields compared to traditional biofuels.
Miscanthus, for instance, mainly grown in Africa and South Asia, can produce up to 1,250 gallons of fuel per acre, with switchgrass not far behind.
The only problem is that they are not commercially viable at the moment, as they are still in the laboratory phase. This means that they are unlikely to make a substantial contribution to the EU’s target of 10% before 2020. Also, whether we opt for the first or the second generation of biofuels to fill our tanks, the competition for land, water and other resources between energy and food crops is likely to remain.
The ‘third generation’ of biofuels is also in the pipeline – these are derived from algae and are believed to have huge yields: some species can produce as much oil from an area of a football pitch’s end-zone as three entire football pitches of soybeans. But the technology is too costly and far from entering the market at the moment.
In the end, how can we ensure that we benefit from biofuels? The most obvious answer is to be honest in evaluating their impact: the more resources and energy we dedicate to examining and researching the direct and indirect impact of increased use of biofuels, the better equipped we will be to make the right choices as to their deployment. Another crucial point is the need for international cooperation: the EU’s sustainability criteria will be toothless to ensure that forests around the world is not felled and damaged. Thus, only comprehensive, ambitious land-use change policies at international level can offer a solution. Over to you, COP16!
Julia PoliscanovaAuthor : Letters to the EurActiv editor