Biofuels: green dream or climate change nightmare?

Posted by jamie — 9 May 2007 at 12:00am - Comments

As you may have already seen, along with WWF, the RSPB, Friends of the Earth and enoughsenough.org, we've placed an advert in several of today's papers warning the government about the environmental risks of biofuels as an alternative to petrol and diesel. Hang on, I imagine some of you are saying right now, aren't they supposed to be clean and green with the power to save us from the tyranny of fossil fuels? Well, yes... and no.

Green fuels? Yes please!
The government wants to know what you think about biofuels. Tell them we need strict and compulsory controls to make sure they really are green fuels. Hurry - you need to do it before 17 May.
Send your email now

View the advert

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Biofuels such as ethanol (a petrol replacement that Brazil is doing so much to champion) and biodiesel can indeed have advantages over more traditional fuel sources. Made from processed agricultural crops such as sugar cane and oil palm, burning biofuels only releases the carbon dioxide those plants absorbed during their lifecycle, not massive quantities of compressed, fossilised carbon that has been locked out of the carbon cycle for millions of years. So naturally, they could form part of the solution to climate change, at least if it doesn't take a huge amount of energy to actually make them which is sometimes the case.

The battle between cars and people

As a result, the government has grabbed onto biofuels like a drowning sailor and in the proposed Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO) is insisting that all fuel companies increase the amount of biofuels they supply. Sounds like a great idea, until you look at how they're produced. As George Monbiot has been pointing out for several years (see here, here and, more recently, here), if their production isn't properly monitored and controlled, it could spell disaster for rainforests, our own food and water supplies and even climate change.

I know it's stating the bloody obvious but these crops need to be grown somewhere. There's a finite amount of arable land on the planet and most, if not all, of that is already being used to feed the 6 billion plus population. Monbiot points out that if we rely on crops for our fuel supplies, it will "set up a competition for food between cars and people" and that crop prices are already rising as a result. As food becomes more and more expensive, you can bet it won't be those sitting behind the wheel of a 4x4 going hungry.

With prices for biofuel crops rising ever higher as demand increases, the temptation to open up new areas of arable land is just too great. Illegal timber isn't the only reason the rainforests of south-east Asia are being torn down, and in Indonesia vast areas that were once virgin forest are being replanted with palms, the oil from which goes into a multitude of supermarket products and, increasingly, biofuels. With species such as orang-utans already highly endangered, the expansion of oil palm plantations into their remaining habitat could be the final straw.

Deforestation = climate change

The link between deforestation and accelerated climate change is well-established, not least in the Stern Review which said that 18 per cent of emissions are as a result of forest destruction. Another fact in our own press release that caught my eye is that biodiesel from soya grown on deforested land would take 200 years before it could be considered 'carbon neutral'.

But to even attempt to meet the world's current fuel demands, colossal tracts of land would need to be turned over to biofuel production so the irony is that instead of reducing emissions, this supposedly 'green' alternative could actually be increasing them by an order of magnitude.

So what's the answer? Do we now campaign for an immediate ban on all biofuels? No, because as I mentioned above they can offer part of the solution. However, the government's RTFO needs to ensure that biofuels do actually reduce climate change emissions and that forests and other valuable habitats aren't bulldozed to grow them. But even more importantly, we need to be using less fuel in the first place by making our vehicles more efficient and, wherever possible, getting out of our cars and onto buses, trains, bicycles or Shanks's pony.

So that's something we can all do right there: if you have a car, it should be the most efficient model available. You could also use it less, and start cycling or walking more. If you've done all of that, there's still something you can do: the government is asking for people's views about biofuels so we all have a chance to influence what goes into the RTFO.

Send a email to the transport minister, Stephen Ladyman, telling him that we need for rigorous controls on biofuels. Otherwise the green dream really will become a nightmare.

GLOBAL WARMING
Carbon Sequestration

How many hectares would need to be planted with trees on currently unforested lands
to compensate our carbon footprint?

Carbon sequestration by tree planting is only a small part of a temporary solution to the problem of global warming. It would be necessary to change our consumption and living behaviour to solve this problem.

Carbon sequestration it is present only during the maturity period of the tree. Trees take carbon dioxide from the air together with other elements from the soil and the air which are converted into wood. The amount of carbon sequestered by a tree in a given year is simply and only the little increase of the mass in the tree per year, multiplied by the mass of the tree that is carbon.

Approximately 42% to 50% of the mass of a tree (dry weight) is carbon. There is a net carbon sequestration only while the tree is growing to reach maturity. As trees die, they emit the carbon sequestered back into the atmosphere. In steady state, a mature forest gives off as much carbon as it gathers. Therefore, it is not important how much carbon the tree will sequester immediately, but rather how much it will sequester over its entire life. To calculate carbon sequestration, it is necessary to decide on the period of time that it takes for the forest to reach maturity. Carbon sequestration rates vary by tree species, soil types, climates, topography and management practices.

Carbon accumulation in forests and soils eventually reaches a saturation point, beyond which additional sequestration is no longer possible. This happens, for example, when trees reach maturity, or when the organic matter in soils builds back up to original levels before losses occurred. Even after carbon saturation, the trees or agricultural practices would need to be sustained to maintain the accumulated carbon and prevent subsequent losses of carbon back to the atmosphere.

Plants, humans and animals are carbon based life-forms using energy from the sun to withdraw carbon from the air. This carbon it is used in the internal chemistry of the cells. Trees take C02 mainly through small pores on the undersides of their leaves. Frequently at night, trees give off more C02 than they absorb by the leaves.

One tonne of carbon in wood or forest bio-mass represents about 3.5 tonnes of atmospheric C02. Without going into atomic chemistry 100 Kg. of dried wood contains approximately 45 Kg. of carbon equivalent to 160 Kg. of atmospheric C02.

Mature trees at intervals of 5 meters in forests would correspond to 400 trees per hectare, with about 300 Kg. of carbon in each tree. Since generally 42% of the mass of a tree is carbon, this corresponds to each tree weighing 714 Kg.

Estimates for the amount of carbon sequestered during 100 years range from 75 to 200 metric tonnes per hectare, depending on the type of tree. We could assume 100 tonnes of carbon sequestered per hectare equivalent to 350 tonnes of C02 per hectare in 100 years. This is equal to one tonne of carbon sequestered per hectare per year equivalent to 3.5 tonnes of C02 per hectare per year without taking into account loss of trees.

Calculating losses at 25% per hectare, this would give us 75 tonnes of carbon and 260 tonnes of C02 sequestered per hectare in 100 years. This is equal to 0.75 tonnes of carbon and 2.6 tonnes of C02 per year per hectare

An average carbon dioxide emissions worldwide per person was about 3.9 tonnes in 2001. Then, 1.5 hectares per person would be required to compensate the carbon footprint. Additionally, to compensate the carbon footprint of the world’s population of 6,000 million people there should be 9,000 million hectares of adequate land available for tree planting on currently unforested lands. Population and C02 emissions are increasing daily, so much more hectares would be required.

Fertile lands are needed for food production. Most of the largest extensions of currently unforested lands in the world are not adequate for tree planting. Furthermore, 70.8% of the world’s surface is covered by water. Tree planting benefits the environment greatly, but will not solve the problem of global warming. It would be necessary to change our consumption and living behaviour to solve the problem of global warming.

The notion that there is "good" CO2 which comes from recently deceased botanicals, and "bad" CO2 which comes from botanicals which died many years ago, is just plain silly.

Carbon is carbon. When you burn it, it produces carbon dioxide. So if a person is genuinely concerned that CO2 in the air is causing global warming, he or she should be of a mind to eschew the burning of ANY carbon fuel, be it coal, petroleum, natural gas or ethanol. If internal combustion is desired, then that CO2-shy person should be looking for an engine that burns hydrogen produced by hydrolysis produced in turn by electricity from nuclear power.

I understand the problem with newly created bio fuels, feeding cars over people, but what about the reuse of old or waste oils?
Is the government considering the recycling of oils, for instance the gathering and filtering of the millions of gallons of catering oil that is poured away each year causing huge problems for the sewage systems?

I wasn't trying to make a distinction between 'good' and 'bad' CO2 (and you're right - such an idea is nonsense), but there's no denying the net effect of burning biofuels compared with that of burning fossil fuels is very different.

In the less than 150 years, we've released vast quantities of carbon (in the form of carbon dioxide) that has been locked out of the carbon cycle for millions of years in the form of oil, coal and other fossilised deposits. By doing this over a very short space of time, geologically speaking, we're unbalancing this natural process to the point where we've saturating the atmosphere with CO2 and its resulted in climate change.

Biofuels, on the other hand, are only releasing the carbon accumulated during the lifetime of the plant in question. So while ethanol does indeed release CO2, it's considered carbon neutral because that CO2 would have been removed from the atmosphere only a few months or years beforehand. The net amount of CO2 in the atmosphere hasn't increased and as jdelavegal points out above, a mature forest is also carbon neutral, absorbing as much CO2 as it releases.

And while hydrogen fuels might be part of a good energy mix, I don't think nuclear power is the way forward.

web editor
gpuk

If we could power everything on old chip fat, the world would indeed be a better place. The sad thing is that, unless we all become morbidly obese, there isn't enough of it to fuel the nation's cars.

Shame.

web editor
gpuk

I think we should all change our ways as it is the planet that is suffering for our mistakes.If everyone took time to recycle and be bothered about the enviroment then we would all live in a safer and cleaner world.

Having recently discovered biodiesel(made from rapeseed) am I now to stop using it, based on this article. I have no choice but to use my car for work and so 'green diesel' seemed like the best option to reduce my carbon emissions, however, I am now confused and feel a bit guilty at destroying rainforests. Somebody please ease my conscience!

Hey,
I would like to invite all readers of this blog to check out a webpage about production of biodiesel within the african countries - the ultimate solution to both replacing all fossil fuels worldwide and ending poverty in africa - and please give us your comments and your views - I really am convinced that this is the only way we can stop global warming!
Andrea

If you could provide the address of your web page, I'd be happy to.

web editor
gpuk

In the article http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/blog/climate/bio-diesel-green-fuel-we-can-u...

greenpeace encouraged the use of bio fuels, esspecialy bio diesel but are now going against them. I have the feeling that greenpeace holds some responisbilty for any enviromental damaged caused from bio fuels. Insted of campaigning for everything to be changed imediatly maybe these enviromental groups should find a LONG TERM, VIABLE solution before campaigning and not cause more damage than good.

deforestation to produce bio fuels is certainly not the answer to the worlds energy needs. The developing countries of the world also have the right to make money from from the assets in there own country. if the developed western worlds want to stop deforestation then they should subsidize these countries either directly or with carbon credits issued to the land owners. the developed world has already cut down all the trees in there own countries it is wrong to expect underdeveloped countries not to do the same.

the bio diesel industry is also in its infancy and there is allot of work being done to developing algae plantations producing more bio fuel at a much faster rates. bio diesel is not the answer to all our problems but is a step in the right direction.

energy produced from nuclear power is certainly not the answer. if you take the average american individual. over the course of there entire life the energy spent if derived from nuclear fission would produce a tennis ball sized lump of uranium. at first this doesn't sound very much until you take into account uranium has to be stored for 5000 years before it is considered safe. we cannot expect the future generations of this planet to be storing the wast from our energy needs. something has to be done and at least bio fuel is addressing this problem.

Response to Lt Dan on 10 May 2007
pro nuclear fission

as mentioned in my comment above, the average american individual would produce a tennis ball sized lump of uranium if all the energy they used in there lifetime were to be derived from nuclear fission. that doesn't sound like allot until you consider that uranium of this nature needs to be stored 5000 years to be considered safe. it is wrong to expect future generations of the world to be storing our waste. We need to focus on a sustainable energy production not sweeping it under the carpet.

Hi, I'm an engineer and i'm really interested in biofuels. A comment from the editor stuck out, something along the lines

"they are carbon neutral because they only emit what they absorb."

Sadly this is not correct, at least not according to most current scientific debate on the problem. Look up the paper by Farrell (2006) who analysed 6 different studies looking at the entire life cycle of growing corn and its conversion to ethanol. He found that there is only a very modest reduction in green house gas emissions for US corn-ethanol, around 13%.

The problem is you have forgotten to consider the entire lifecycle. The fertilizers, the transportation, the machinery, the energy intensive conversion process- all relies on fossil fuels or their derivatives at present.

Another thing you might find really interesting is Patzek (2004 paper) on the consequences of the second law of thermodynamics on the build up of entropy in ecosystems which currently suggests the amount of soil erosion and other forms of environmental degredation of the environment, caused by biofuels is unsustainable.

Always consider the thermodynamics of the problem.

Rich @ Oxford uni

I didn't mention the emissions related to fertilisers, pesticides etc which absolutely, they do need to be taken into account. But the line you quoted was indicating the standpoint used to justify the use of biofuels and their reduced emissions when burnt compared to fossil fuels, not an indication of the emissions generated over the complete lifecycle.

And further on, that was my point - even without factoring in fertilisers and so on, the emissions caused by the forest clearance that's taking place to clear land for biofuel cultivation hadn't, until relatively recently, been taken into account either. So without proper sustainability controls and (as you point out) appreciation of emissions over the full lifecycle of any biofuel, they may have no benefit and may even have higher emissions than more traditional fuel sources.

I'm afraid I'm a bit fuzzy on entropy and thermodynamics though so I'll have to take your word for it :)

web editor
gpuk

BIO FUEL CAN BE MADE FROM ANYTHING FROM ANIMAL WASTE OR FOOD WASTE.IT CAN ALSO BE MADE FROM COCONUT OIL OR PLANTS LIKE BAMBOO. WE DONT NEED PALM OIL OR CRUDE OIL.
LOOK AT THE ARMISS THEY HAVE NO CAR'S TV'S NOT EVEN POWER THEY GROW AND MAKE ALL THEY OWN THING AND THEY ARE HAPPY.NOW THAT IS A SUSTAINABLE LIFESTYLY.

Hey, I would like to invite all readers of this blog to check out a webpage about production of biodiesel within the african countries - the ultimate solution to both replacing all fossil fuels worldwide and ending poverty in africa - and please give us your comments and your views - I really am convinced that this is the only way we can stop global warming! Andrea

If you could provide the address of your web page, I'd be happy to. web editor gpuk

In the article http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/blog/climate/bio-diesel-green-fuel-we-can-u... greenpeace encouraged the use of bio fuels, esspecialy bio diesel but are now going against them. I have the feeling that greenpeace holds some responisbilty for any enviromental damaged caused from bio fuels. Insted of campaigning for everything to be changed imediatly maybe these enviromental groups should find a LONG TERM, VIABLE solution before campaigning and not cause more damage than good.

deforestation to produce bio fuels is certainly not the answer to the worlds energy needs. The developing countries of the world also have the right to make money from from the assets in there own country. if the developed western worlds want to stop deforestation then they should subsidize these countries either directly or with carbon credits issued to the land owners. the developed world has already cut down all the trees in there own countries it is wrong to expect underdeveloped countries not to do the same. the bio diesel industry is also in its infancy and there is allot of work being done to developing algae plantations producing more bio fuel at a much faster rates. bio diesel is not the answer to all our problems but is a step in the right direction. energy produced from nuclear power is certainly not the answer. if you take the average american individual. over the course of there entire life the energy spent if derived from nuclear fission would produce a tennis ball sized lump of uranium. at first this doesn't sound very much until you take into account uranium has to be stored for 5000 years before it is considered safe. we cannot expect the future generations of this planet to be storing the wast from our energy needs. something has to be done and at least bio fuel is addressing this problem.

Response to Lt Dan on 10 May 2007 pro nuclear fission as mentioned in my comment above, the average american individual would produce a tennis ball sized lump of uranium if all the energy they used in there lifetime were to be derived from nuclear fission. that doesn't sound like allot until you consider that uranium of this nature needs to be stored 5000 years to be considered safe. it is wrong to expect future generations of the world to be storing our waste. We need to focus on a sustainable energy production not sweeping it under the carpet.

Hi, I'm an engineer and i'm really interested in biofuels. A comment from the editor stuck out, something along the lines "they are carbon neutral because they only emit what they absorb." Sadly this is not correct, at least not according to most current scientific debate on the problem. Look up the paper by Farrell (2006) who analysed 6 different studies looking at the entire life cycle of growing corn and its conversion to ethanol. He found that there is only a very modest reduction in green house gas emissions for US corn-ethanol, around 13%. The problem is you have forgotten to consider the entire lifecycle. The fertilizers, the transportation, the machinery, the energy intensive conversion process- all relies on fossil fuels or their derivatives at present. Another thing you might find really interesting is Patzek (2004 paper) on the consequences of the second law of thermodynamics on the build up of entropy in ecosystems which currently suggests the amount of soil erosion and other forms of environmental degredation of the environment, caused by biofuels is unsustainable. Always consider the thermodynamics of the problem. Rich @ Oxford uni

I didn't mention the emissions related to fertilisers, pesticides etc which absolutely, they do need to be taken into account. But the line you quoted was indicating the standpoint used to justify the use of biofuels and their reduced emissions when burnt compared to fossil fuels, not an indication of the emissions generated over the complete lifecycle. And further on, that was my point - even without factoring in fertilisers and so on, the emissions caused by the forest clearance that's taking place to clear land for biofuel cultivation hadn't, until relatively recently, been taken into account either. So without proper sustainability controls and (as you point out) appreciation of emissions over the full lifecycle of any biofuel, they may have no benefit and may even have higher emissions than more traditional fuel sources. I'm afraid I'm a bit fuzzy on entropy and thermodynamics though so I'll have to take your word for it :) web editor gpuk

BIO FUEL CAN BE MADE FROM ANYTHING FROM ANIMAL WASTE OR FOOD WASTE.IT CAN ALSO BE MADE FROM COCONUT OIL OR PLANTS LIKE BAMBOO. WE DONT NEED PALM OIL OR CRUDE OIL. LOOK AT THE ARMISS THEY HAVE NO CAR'S TV'S NOT EVEN POWER THEY GROW AND MAKE ALL THEY OWN THING AND THEY ARE HAPPY.NOW THAT IS A SUSTAINABLE LIFESTYLY.

The alternatives to petroleums and diesels in the likes of biodiesels are such a great innovation, so great that biofuels are now in demand in the market. Many also got into getting their car converted in order for them to run their cars with biofuels. Yes biofuels could mean having a competition between cars and people and that needs to be solved by balancing the distribution of crops (used as biofuel and food) to the people and cars.

So, I feel this article is very unclear. Is Greenpeace still endorsing biofuels given the ingredients are not grown in a way contradicting to Greenpeace's other stances? (Biofuels made from plant sources not grown on deforested land, not grown with petro pesticides and chemical fertilizers and not genetically-modified?) I know of a couple sustainable biodiesel companies here in California that provide fuel made from organic, local mustard seed oil and the other from recycled restaurant oils. Portland Oregon's public bus system gets their biodiesels from companies that produces biodiesel made from US-grown crops.
These are all examples of sustainable and on their way to sustainable biofuels. These kinds of companies should be nurtured by environmentalists, not stamped out because Greenpeace confuses people about biodiesel. Follow your biodiesel back to its source and ensure its not from deforested land and if that's so it's a greenhouse gas and species-saving investment, not vice versa.

About Jamie

I'm one of the editors of the website, and I do a lot of work on the Get Active section, as well as doing web stuff for the forests campaign. I've worked for Greenpeace since 2006 and, coming from a background as a freelance writer and web producer, it's been something of an education to be part of a direct action organisation. I'm from Cumbria originally but now I live in north London - I came to study here and somehow have never left.

My personal mumblings can be found @shrinkydinky.

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