Friday, 25 June 2010

Biofuels: Problem or Solution?

‘Biodegradable’, ‘renewable’, ‘green’; mention a handful of our favourite buzzwords and society breathes a sigh of relief, content in the reassurance that we can continue with our consumptive lifestyles without endangering the health of our precious planet.

‘Bio-fuels’ have tagged a healthy portion of ‘green words’, and many with good reason, but there are core issues that still need addressing to ensure that the latest ‘solution’ to enhancing the greenhouse effect doesn’t merely replace one global crisis with another.

Bio-fuel is energy that can be obtained from biological resources – organic material produced from plants, animals or microorganisms. These can be derived from waste products, such as sludge, alcohol and plant wastage, or crops produced specifically for the purpose. They can take the form of solids, liquid or gases and, due to their organic nature, are biodegradable.

Seen as a replacement for fossil fuels, bio-fuels are being adopted by car users, rail companies, the aviation industry and domestic appliance manufacturers. ‘Bio-alcohol’ (ethanol) and ‘Bio-diesel’ are the most commonly used forms, with the latter taking preference in Europe and ethanol more popular in the USA and South America. Both can be used in existing car engines and mixed with a blend of gasoline or diesel to the desired ratio or used in their raw form.

The positive environmental aspects of using bio-fuels is their reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, in comparison to fossil fuels, providing less threat of global warming and associated negative impacts. A 1998 study by the US government suggested that, biodiesel produces significantly less pollutants than conventional fuels, is largely sulphur free and emits 78% less carbon dioxide than diesel. It has been suggested that biodiesel can cut emissions of carbon dioxide, by up to 60 per cent. In addition, burning bio-fuel does not give off the unpleasant odour associated with petrol and diesel powered engines.

Bio-diesel is easy to use. Existing engines do not need to be modified and the fuel is safer to transport and store than fossil fuels and, on top of a host of environmental benefits, the necessary production of organic matter, needed to produce fuels, could create valuable jobs for England’s struggling farmers… Oh yes, and it’s cheaper to produce and purchase than fossil-fuel diesel.

Sounds amazing! What’s the catch?

You would imagine that bio-fuels would have environmentalists and climate experts jumping for joy, and send oil companies hopping mad. The reality, however, is quite different…

Alongside concerns over efficiency and storage life, the most pressing issue is land; to meet Britain’s fuel demands alone, we would need to utilise over 25 million hectares of agricultural land, in order to grow the raw materials needed for bio-fuel production. The problem? We only have 5.7miilion hectares. So we’d have to source our materials from elsewhere, requiring extensive use of agricultural land and likely to involve widespread deforestation and habitat destruction.

Shifting the focus from using farmland for food, to fuel, farmers may be deprived of cultivating staple foods, holding potentially fatal impacts for poverty stricken regions of the world. Wealthy oil companies have the power to buy farmland for bio-fuel crop cultivation, putting disadvantaged farmers in an uncompromising position. Matthew Brown, former energy program director at the National Conference of State Legislatures, puts this into perspective: “Replacing only five percent of the nation’s diesel consumption with biodiesel would require diverting approximately 60 percent of today’s soy crops to biodiesel production”.

Bio-fuels are still in their infancy, with research and development ongoing, to find the most efficient, cleanest and sustainable models. Many companies are already onboard and bio-fuels have been adopted on a worldwide scale. Bio-ethanol is widely available in rural USA and Brazil, and British filling stations and supermarkets are slowly introducing bio-diesel pumps.

Commercially, big companies are keen to fly the bio-fuel flag and, no doubt, jump on an opportunity to cut their fuel costs. Richard Branson launched one of the first bio-diesel powered aircrafts in 2008 and, in 2007, trialled a 20% blend of biodiesel to fuel his trains. Still in its early days, a small portion of Virgin aircrafts now fly solely on bio-fuels but after a six month trail, a decision was made not to adapt to bio-diesel powered rail, despite an estimation by The Union Internationale des Chemins de Fer that converting the entire Virgin fleet of trains to bio-diesel could cut carbon emissions by 14%.

Bio-fuel production and trade is ever increasing and, of course, has potentially massive benefits for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. So is there a way to source the raw materials more sustainably? They’re looking into it!

At the moment, one problem is monitoring trade. The Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO), have suggested that fuel suppliers are failing to provide sufficient information on the sustainability of their sources. A significant portion of the world’s bio-fuel is thought to be derived from inexpensive Indonesian palm oil plantations, well known for their large-scale destruction of rainforests and associated impacts on native and endangered wildlife, primarily the iconic and ill-fated orang-utan.

But the future looks brighter, with the RTFO recognising sustainability and sourcing as major concerns, they are working towards introducing mandatory reporting systems and setting compulsory sustainability criteria, which they hope will take effect by the end of 2010.

You have to ask yourself though, is a new fuel really going to solve the global problems associated with man’s motor powered lifestyles? Perhaps our efforts would be better spent on tackling the root causes of global warming, rainforest destruction and international food crises by facing up to the fact that our lifestyles are primarily what needs to change and that substituting one fuel for another is just a small piece of a greater global movement, rather than a holistic solution.

Photo take from The Danish Centre for Biofuels

Lucy's article was also posted on Responsible Travel News: Biofuels, The Problem or Solution?

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