Carbon Dioxide (CO2) is the most economically important greenhouse gas (GHG) as it constitutes about 85% of all GHG emissions from anthropogenic activity.
With the transport sector responsible for roughly a quarter of CO2 emissions globally, there has and continues to be considerable pressure to reduce pollution within this sector.
A currently popular approach to appeasing this issue is to turn to biofuels, which, as the name suggests are sources of fuel derived from biological material, i.e. grown in crops such as corn ethanol.
The major benefit to this approach is that all the CO2 that is released when the fuel is burnt has only recently been sequestered from the atmosphere during the plants growth, essentially meaning that no additional GHG’s are being released into the atmosphere. In theory then, this process is carbon neutral.
In comparison, the burning of fossil fuels results in the release of CO2 that has been absent from the atmosphere for millennia, in essence producing a ‘new’ source of the gas that is steadily increasing its proportion in our atmosphere, resulting in global warming and furthermore an increase in frequency of freak weather events such as El Niño’s.
As a result, the land devoted to biofuel production has rocketed in recent years. Current production consumes 1% of the world’s arable farmland, a figure that is set to rise to up to 3.8% by 2030.With biofuels recognised as a relatively greener energy source, that any country can produce domestically, whilst retaining production and distribution systems already in place for conventional fuels, worldwide governments have responded by setting targets to substitute biofuels for fossil fuels, particularly in the transport sector. The EU for example, has targets to provide 10% of transport fuels from biofuels by 2020.
And here is where the major problem of biofuel production becomes apparent. Biofuel production is in direct competition with food production, meaning that more land devoted to biofuels means less land devoted to traditional agriculture.
Today, 15% of the worlds 7 billion inhabitants suffer from food deprivation. With trends suggesting the global population will top 9 billion by 2050 it is predicted food production will have to disproportionately increase by a staggering 50% in the same period. Already, land degradation threatens our ability to meet this rise in agricultural output. Combine this threat with the increasing proportions of arable land being devoted to biofuel and the synergistic effect will likely be disastrous.
Even if we ignore the direct effects of malnutrition and starvation (Which we most definitely should not!) that will predominantly affect impoverished countries in Africa and Asia, it is increasingly clear that biofuel industry will struggle to become sustainable.
That the EU and other governmental bodies have not previously accounted for these additional carbon costs is worrying. Without reassessment of the advantages of biofuels, and a more sustainable, legislated approach to their production, it is possible that bioenergy, marketed as a clean fuel alternative, is actually more damaging than its precursors; gas, coal and oil.A recent stand by a panel of European scientists has publicised a further issue with biofuels, highlighting the concept of indirect land use change (ILUC). Essentially these scientists have pointed out the glaring issue that bioenergy only emits less CO2 than fossil fuels if it is made from crops that would not otherwise have been grown. Furthermore the panel identify the threat that a shortfall in food crop (as a direct result of biofuel crop production) will push populations to simply develop new agricultural land on which to depend. If this production is at the expense of forests and other biomes that are extensive carbon stores the end result (e.g. deforestation) may be that biofuel crops actually have a much larger carbon footprint than previously anticipated.
With mounting opposition to the aforementioned EU targets to biofuel, and increasing data that highlights their disadvantages (including food insecurity and natural land conversion), biofuels seem to have dropped from grace.
However there is still some place for optimism. Development of second, third and even fourth generation biofuels may yet reverse the negative press that biofuels currently receive. Biofuel produced from non-food crops such as algae have the potential to alleviate many of the current issues surrounding the energy source, allowing crop growth on non-arable land, and, in the case of algae providing a biofuel source that is vastly more efficient than first generation crops.
With current biofuels failing to impress, I believe that embracing the next generation crops such as algae may be the only real solution to salvage a future for biofuels, a technology that once promised to be our solution to global warming.