Are biofuels really “green”?

November 2, 2007

A worker cuts sugar cane for raw sugar and ethanol fuel production near Pradopolis, Brazil. Picture taken July 2007Biofuels, made from plant material, are often called “green” or “environmentally friendly” compared to conventional transport fuels such as gasoline and diesel.

Are they?

The idea is that biofuels merely exploit a carbon cycle – plants store carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, as they grow and release it after they die. So biofuels can slow global warming by cutting use of fossil fuels that release greenhouse gases trapped for millions of years. Biofuels can also help countries bolster their energy security and shore up dwindling farm incomes.

But some of them have nasty side effects and arouse strong views.

One problem is that biofuels narrow the range of habitats for wildlife. Some tropical forests — huge stores of carbon — are cleared to grow crops such as palm oil in Malaysia and Indonesia. Environmentalists say that wildlife such as the orang utan is coming under threat from palm oil plantations in Indonesia.Sumatran orang utan Anita, 23, carries her baby Atina, 1, at the opening of  new home in Singapore Zoo, July 2007

Other biofuels, such as ethanol produced by Brazil from sugar cane, get better ratings. Unlike palm oil, sugar cane doesn’t grow in climates where it could compete with tropical rainforests. But planned increases in Brazilian soybean production could encroach on the Amazon.

In Europe and North America, biofuels are mainly derived from intensively farmed food crops such as corn (maize), rapeseed and wheat. One report, disputed by biofuels producers, said that using fertilisers to grow these crops produces more greenhouse gases than burning conventional diesel and gasoline.

The drive for biofuels, taking farm land away from crops, is one factor stoking rising food prices. Maize prices have been surging despite bumper crops in the United States, Brazil and Mexico.

So are biofuels helping to protect the environment and do they merit the “green” tag?

If not, how should we describe them — maybe “renewable” or “alternative”?

Please tell us what you think.

One comment

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“Biofuels” are “green” only to the extent that they cost less energy to manufacture than they generate when burnt – whether it be in a boiler or diesel engine or whatever. If, as I believe is generally the case, other fuels, such as natural gas, petroleum-based fuels, or coal need to be used in the manufacturing process, then they cannot be said to be “green”.

It is the process of releasing carbon which has been sequestered for millions of years, and which is, upon being burnt, increasing the partial pressure of CO2 level in the atmosphere that is causing global warming.

There is an additional cost associated with biofuels, and that is the depletion of nutrients in the soil in which they are grown. A typical nutrient cycle – one undisturbed by man – is such that grass grows, is eaten by buffalo and other herbivores (for example) which then die, either of old age or predation, and return their bodies to the soil of the area in which they lived, either directly or by passing through the system of a preditor or preditors, which, in turn die…

When humans interrupt this cycle, it becomes necessary to replenish the soil with fertilizer. The energy costs of manufacturing the fertilizer and then tranporting and distributing it much be accounted for when trying to determine if a “biofuel” is “green”.

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Posted by Biofuels: Good or Bad? | Report as abusive

Are biofuels really “green”?

November 2, 2007

A worker cuts sugar cane for raw sugar and ethanol fuel production near Pradopolis, Brazil. Picture taken July 2007Biofuels, made from plant material, are often called "green" or "environmentally friendly" compared to conventional transport fuels such as gasoline and diesel.

Are they?

The idea is that biofuels merely exploit a carbon cycle - plants store carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, as they grow and release it after they die. So biofuels can slow global warming by cutting use of fossil fuels that release greenhouse gases trapped for millions of years. Biofuels can also help countries bolster their energy security and shore up dwindling farm incomes.

But some of them have nasty side effects and arouse strong views.

One problem is that biofuels narrow the range of habitats for wildlife. Some tropical forests -- huge stores of carbon -- are cleared to grow crops such as palm oil in Malaysia and Indonesia. Environmentalists say that wildlife such as the orang utan is coming under threat from palm oil plantations in Indonesia.Sumatran orang utan Anita, 23, carries her baby Atina, 1, at the opening of  new home in Singapore Zoo, July 2007

Other biofuels, such as ethanol produced by Brazil from sugar cane, get better ratings. Unlike palm oil, sugar cane doesn't grow in climates where it could compete with tropical rainforests. But planned increases in Brazilian soybean production could encroach on the Amazon.

In Europe and North America, biofuels are mainly derived from intensively farmed food crops such as corn (maize), rapeseed and wheat. One report, disputed by biofuels producers, said that using fertilisers to grow these crops produces more greenhouse gases than burning conventional diesel and gasoline.

The drive for biofuels, taking farm land away from crops, is one factor stoking rising food prices. Maize prices have been surging despite bumper crops in the United States, Brazil and Mexico.

So are biofuels helping to protect the environment and do they merit the "green" tag?

If not, how should we describe them -- maybe "renewable" or "alternative"?

Please tell us what you think.

3 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Biofuels are doubly hard on the environment from soil mining to energy intensity of the manufacturing process.

Why do we equate mobility with filling a gas tank?
Why are we moving a ton to move a person?

If you remove the Parasitic Mass (mass not cargo or passengers) then it is practical to have solar powered mobility.

JPods will open its first solar powered network March 1, 2008. Ultra-light vehicles, suspended from rails require 200 watt-hours to travel a mile. Solar collectors 6-foot wide mounted over the rails typically gather 2.5 million watt-hours a day. Enough power for 12,500 vehicle-miles.

The technology is quite simple; basically a computer managed network of Horizontal-Elevators.

If you are interested in more information on such systems many are listed at www.jpod.com under the Technology section. Also go to YouTube and look up Personal Rapid Transit.

Posted by Bill James | Report as abusive

1) Given Peak Oil, in not that many decades, there won’t be any cheap oil. Hence, if people are then fueling farm machiney & trucks with biofuels, they are at least recirculating CO2, rather than taking it out of the ground.
peak Oil: look up in Wikipedia, or in David Strahan’s http://www.lastoilshock.com.

2) A lot of serious people think corn ethanol, anyway, is only a transient use to kickstart infrastructure and flex-fuel vehicles. I.e., this is in preparation for the (hoped for but needs more research and infrastructure) cellulosic biofuels, i.e., from things like miscanthus (elephant grass), wood chips, jatropha, etc.
http://miscanthus.uiuc.edu
CAVEAT: more research needed.

OF COURSE, it’s better to go electric (i.e., burn, generate electricity, and sequester the CO2 is especially good), but this looks OK for creating liquid fuel as well.

We’ve had thousands of years of breeding crops for food, and as an old farmboy, I know corn wasn’t designed for fuel. Miscanthus uses a lot less fertilizer and water than corn, and it is actually a carbon-sequestering plant.

3) Modern agriculture, especially in North America, where 2-3% of the population are farmers, simply will not continue as is without replacements for petroleum:

– for getting fertilizer (natural gas is another issue)
– for running farm machinery
– for medium/long distance transport of crops

It makes no sense to grow crops if they can’t be gotten to market, and the scale of the Mid-West doesn’t hit you until you *drive* across it.
Kansas alone is almost 90% of the size of the UK, and has 12.7 people/km^2, compared to the UK’s 246, and most of the food it grows gets shipped elsewhere. California grows half of the fruit and veggies in the US, and we do *not* eat them all, which means they get shipped long distances.

Electric tractors are around, but I’ve yet to see a convincing plan for how one eliminates petroleum from N. American farming without having some fuel, not just solar/wind electricity. If somebody comes up with really terrific batteries, maybe, but that will take serious breakthroughs.

I’d be happy to see a plan, short of people moving out of cities, splitting up all the big farms, an in the extreme case, going back to family-size farms worked with horses and no electricity, i.e., Old Amish lifestyle.

4) In any case, in a post-petroleum world, the prevalence of shipping bulk food long distances is going to go way down…

5) Finally, let’s observe that before weighing food-vs-biofuel, we should first consider:

– there is a popular non-food crop X, whose worldwide (and US) acreage and production is going up.

– in some places, forests are cut to plant X, and otherwise, XC is grown on prime land.

– in some places, forests are cut to process (dry) X (or else fossil fuels used)

What’s X?

Tobacco.

Google: tobacco deforestration 2006

www.who.int/tobacco/resources/publicatio ns/tobacco_atlas/en/index.html
http://www.who.int/entity/tobacco/en/atl as16.pdf

The latter notes: 4M hectares, with big growth in developing countries and especially China and India. %’s of deforestation caused by tobacco-planting range from 16% (Zimbabwe) to 45% (Republic of Korea).

Posted by John Mashey | Report as abusive

5 senior scientists say the IPCC 4AR Mitigation report contains several unfounded claims on biofuels and a lack of due warnings; and the respective Lead Author has ignored requests for explanation.

http://www.grain.org/m/?id=154 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7096 819.stm
http://biz.yahoo.com/bw/071108/200711080 06341.html?.v=1

For letter see:
http://www.grain.org/agrofuels/IPCC-Lett er-to-DrRKPachauri.pdf

At least 8 MPs join the 5 scientists calling for IPCC explanation:
http://edmi.parliament.uk/EDMi/EDMDetail s.aspx?EDMID=34273&SESSION=891

Posted by Jim Roland | Report as abusive