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Nothing is Simple, Not Even Biofuels

If you want to do something right, then it’s not going to be simple. Unfortunately, this is a general rule of life. It’s true not only for cooking, relationships, and work, but also for understanding what "sustainable" biofuels really are.

A recent article in Science by Renton Righelato and Dominick V. Spracklen (with the World Land Trust and the University of Leeds, respectively) has prompted a flurry of discussion about whether biofuels are a good idea or not. In their article, "Carbon Mitigation by Biofuels or by Saving and Restoring Forests?"they note that the world’s richest natural stores of carbon are in forests. They point out that, over a 30-year period, more greenhouse gas emissions can be avoided per acre of land by restoring forests than by using current biofuel technologies.

This analysis has inspired news articles and blogs with titles such as "EU biofuel policy is a ‘mistake’"and "Ethanol dirtier than regular oil." It has led skeptics worldwide to question whether the accelerating global investment in biofuels is really worth it, both as a renewable alternative to fossil fuels and as a remedy for climate change.

But does this mean that promoting all biofuel technologies is wasteful and counterproductive? Not really. As it turns out, even Mr. Righelato is supportive of so-called "second-generation"biofuels—or liquid fuels derived from grasses and woody materials. In the article, he praises the idea of using "woody biomass"as a way to conserve carbon in soil and plant matter while also cultivating a biofuel feedstock.

Of course, the "first-generation"biofuels we use today are not very sustainable. Ethanol made from corn—the most popular biofuel in the United States—has a particularly low sustainability score, although each gallon of corn ethanol used still reduces greenhouse gas emissions by about 13 percent compared to gasoline.

If that 13-percent benefit comes from using land that would have been used to grow corn anyway, then most people would say it’s a modest improvement. But if that land was supposed to be set aside for conservation, and is converted to corn instead, then we have a problem: we have just caused more environmental damage than we can make up for by using corn ethanol. Even more damaging would be choosing to convert intact forestlands—particularly intact tropical forests—to cropland for growing biofuels.

Are forests and other conservation lands being converted to cropland for biofuels? In some cases, yes. Palm oil plantations for biodiesel in Indonesia and Malaysia are the most infamous example of this. In Brazil, the savannah and edges of the Amazon are also being eaten away by expanding agriculture production, some of which is for biofuels. (Most of the pressure, however, comes from cattle ranching operations and the rising demand for soybeans for animal feed.)

The expansion of world croplands for biofuels is not inevitable, and even most policymakers in the European Union realize it is not desirable. Second-generation biofuels, which are produced using typically non-edible, cellulosic plant matter, are much more energetically efficient than current-generation biofuels. Moreover, cultivating these perennial grasses and trees provides net environmental and climate benefits, whether or not the plant matter is ultimately converted to fuel.

But that doesn’t mean all of our energy should come from grasses and forests. A sustainable future depends on a diversified energy supply—one that takes advantage first of savings from energy efficiency, and then relies on a range of renewable energy sources, including wind energy, solar power, and fuels derived from biomass.

In nearly every human endeavor, policymakers, consumers, and others must look at all of the impacts of their decisions to avoid unintended negative consequences. In the case of biofuels, all efforts should be taken to ensure that forests and grasslands are preserved and restored wherever possible.

So, nothing is simple, but nothing is impossible either. Biofuels can do harm—but they can do a lot of good too. When evaluating them, as when evaluating any technologies, it is imperative that we take the time to consider the full range of factors to assess whether they are really sustainable or not.

Raya Widenoja is a researcher and biofuels expert at the Worldwatch Institute. In August 2007, Worldwatch released its landmark report Biofuels for Transport, which discusses in detail many of the issues raised here.

Image: flickr/Adam Weiss

This story was produced by Eye on Earth (e2), a service of World Watch Magazine in partnership with the blue moon fund. e2 provides a unique perspective on current events, newly released studies, and important global trends.

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The original Righelato article is behind a subscription wall but the statement that forests contain the richest "natural" stores of carbon is misleading. The soils of the world, even in their presently depleted state, contain about three times the organic carbon that biomass does, and this carbon is in the form of humus, glomalin, etc. all formed by biological processes. Also, there can be no doubt that most atmospheric and oceanic as well as geological carbon, including oil, gas, and coal, is "natural" however one defines that.

It's a bit amusing that so many of us gas guzzlers have doubts about whether biofuels are "good" or not, and post these doubts on our mainly coal-fired Internet. Biofuels is a huge subject. is a very interesting website for those who think that biofuels are either in the good or bad category.

Posted by: Peter Donovan on 26 Aug 07

good point pointing out the importance of (living) biomass in the soil with its myriad of interactions. Soil life is the basis of our food and animal life in general.

Conversion of biomass into handy fuels for engines is still in the learning curve. Why haggle?

Posted by: diazotrophicus on 26 Aug 07

(1) The authors are definitely not up to date on the latest cutting edge technology being implemented in the U.S. In addition to ethanol, biodeisel, and bio-oil, fuels made from biomass include sythgas and hydrogen, and methane made from manure and municipal solid waste. These are all substitutes for fossil fuels. Hydrogen can also be used to supplement the gasification of biomass to TRIPLE ethanol production. Biofuels replace fossil fuels, and in the process of making and using biofuels, the same CO2 is continuously recycled. In contrast, extracting, shipping, and burning fossil fuels keeps adding new virgin CO2 to the atmosphere and increases global warming.

(2) Your report stated that most biofuel crops are being grown on burned land – For the the most part that is false. That may be true for plam oil, and partially true for sugar cane – but Not in the U.S. and not in Brazil – where they could cover ten times more land with sugar cane without touching their tropical rain forest. In the U.S., biofuel crops are not being grown on burned land. Forests are being thinned to prevent forest fires, and trees are being chipped and pelletized for controlled biomass burn power plants, which are keeping dirty coal burning plants in check.

(3) In the not-too-distant future, these plants, including ethanol refineries will be equipped with ALGAE growing installations which absorb CO2 and exhaust fumes – producing massive amounts of biomass feedstock. From a 50% oil variety of algae, biodiesel will be made from the oil, and the other 50% will produce something else - either biomass burn pellets to supplement burning coal, or for producing ethanol or livestock feed. There are two other varieties of algae, a 60% protein rich type suitable for animal feed, and a 95% starch variety suitable for ethanol. You can NOT have a comprehensive study on biofuels without factoring in algae (100 tons per acre per year), Texas A&M biomass Sorghum (25 tons per acre), and perennial crops such as Switchgrass (15 tons per acre), and Miscathus grass (30 tons per acre)…

(4) Your claim, that it would take 30 years of growing biomass on burned land to balance out CO2 is rediculous. Look at the 30 years of damage by the fossil fuels that the biomass replaces, and factor that in. Your study is flawed by ommission and numbers that don’t add-up. Also, advanced technology will very shortly prove your claim wrong. In a span of 30 years, we will be producing and using biomass in totally new and different ways. If you don’t want rainforest being burned for sugar and palm, then get a program going to compete with them. Create biofuels from better sources. Get algae going, and demonstate that it can out produce palm 20 to 1. Start with a massive campaign to identify and channel all cellulose waste streams into biofuels. Get all your ethanol refineries, your fuel burning power plants, and especially your coal burning power plants equipped with algae installations, and you will be worlds ahead.

Posted by: Jeff Baker on 27 Aug 07

It is not that bio-fuels are necessarily bad (although some clearly are). It is the inefficient internal combustion engine that makes the search for environmentally viable alternative fuels a nonstarter. ICE vehicles are 10% efficient. Electric drives are 90+% efficient and EVs can be fueled with clean renewable solar energy.

Posted by: Steve on 27 Aug 07

Great post!

If the economics don't work, recycling efforts won't either.
As our little contribution to make this economics of recycling more appealing, blogs about people and companies that make money selling recycled or reused items, provide green services or help us reduce our dependency on non renewable resources.

Posted by: Luis on 27 Aug 07



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