Biofuels: a greener answer to energy needs?


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Biofuels were heralded as a greener solution to growing energy needs, however they have recently come under fire for being environmentally unfriendly and contributing to a world food crisis. On the 15th April, the UK government brought into effect the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation (RTFO). The RTFO stated that 2.5 per cent of fuel sold in the UK must consist of biofuel, due to rise to five per cent by 2010. The government initiative is in line with the European Union’s goal of 10 per cent biofuel content for all transport fuel by 2020.

Biofuel, loosely defined as fuel produced from recently dead organic matter or biomas, has become a dynamic and ever growing industry. With the use and production of biofuel having increased significantly in the last decade, it has been heralded as a greener solution that will help meet fuel demands. Europe and the United States subsidise biofuel production both to curb emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide (CO2) from burning gasoline and to address energy security by using alternatives to hydrocarbons. It is said that the increased use of so-called bioenergy could help diversify agricultural and forestry activities, improve food security, contribute to sustainable development and mitigate climate change by replacing fossil fuels that produce global warming greenhouse gases.

There has been significant support from government and industry and many advocates see it as a viable means of cutting carbon emissions. While tailpipe emissions from burning biofuels are about the same as those from fossil fuels, carbon savings are made because the crops for biofuels are replanted, absorbing the same amount of CO2 out of the atmosphere as burning them puts in, thereby making it carbon neutral.  

However, it has recently been reported that scientists see few real climate benefits in biofuel especially in the way that it is currently being produced.

Opponents of biofuel point to reductions in biodiversity and food shortages as major disadvantages of biofuel production. Agricultural land once used to grow grain may be easily turned to growing crops for use in biofuel, while forest habitats are destroyed to clear land for biofuel crops.  According to Robert Bailey, policy adviser to Oxfam, “The sorts of problems that biofuels are causing are irreversible…If rainforest gets chopped down, it's gone forever. If somebody loses access to food, they become malnourished, their physical and mental development is impaired and they may die.” Both Oxfam and the environmental campaign group Greenpeace called the EU policy “reckless”, because fuel providers are not yet obliged to source biofuels from sustainable plantations.

Food Shortages

The World Bank recently reported that food prices have increased 83 per cent in past three years and rising grain prices have led to food shortages across the world. According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, this has resulted in serious tensions and riots in developing nations including Indonesia, the Philippines, Haiti and Egypt. The rising costs of both food and fuel for transportation can be seen to have caused the shortages, but the extent to which biofuel production has contributed to the rising cost of food has come under fire. 

The role of biofuels in increased food prices can bee seen as an issue of supply and demand. While demand for grain has exceeded supply for the last seven years, diverting more produce toward biofuel and away from human consumption can be seen to exacerbate the problem. Acording to Oxfam the EU’s biofuel target has led to a “scramble to supply” in the developing world leading to further risks in food security for some of the world’s most vulnerable people, especially in countries heavily dependent on imports. Countries such as the USA, a major grain exporter has seen a significant shift in production. This year 18% of all US grain production will go to biofuels and In the last two years the US has diverted 60m tonnes of food to fuel. President Morales of Bolivia and Peruvian president, Alan Garcia have attacked the use of bio fuels due to their role in rising food prices.

However, some are quick to point out that biofuels play a limited role. There are other issues effecting supply, for example the catastrophic drought that has hit Australia and the far east making rice so valuable that paddies in Thailand are under armed guard and India and China have cut back on rice exports. In addition to this, grain demand for animal feed and an increase in oil prices relevant to production and transport have also led to upwards price pressure, especially as demand for animal products has increased significantly in emerging economies as their populations become more prosperous.

To what extent can biofuels be blamed for the reduction in supply and subsequent increase in price? The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said last year that biofuels were 'one of the main drivers' for forecasted food price hikes of 20-50 per cent by 2016. The International Food Policy Research Institute has said that around 30 per cent of recent food price inflation can be attributed to biofuel production. 

Increase in Global Warming

Another major argument in favour of biofuels that has been called into question, is that it can reduce global warming by reducing environmentally harmful emissions. Scientists have found that the cultivation of biofuels can actually increase the output of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses, due to the change in land use mainly through deforestation, whereby forests are cleared to make way for biofuel crops leading to a massive release in greenhouse gasses. Deforestation accounts for about a fifth of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, according to Greenpeace. Destruction of peatland forests in Indonesia, driven by the expansion of plantations of palm oil biofuel, now contributes about four per cent of global emissions, the group said. Anywhere from 17 to 420 times as much CO2 can be released into the atmosphere from preparing cropland to grow biofuel crops like soybeans, sugarcane or corn.

Can Biofuels be fully Ethical?

One of the main problems with biofuel is the unsustainable nature of its production. Some believe that once these sustainability issues are solved, biofuel can become a truly green solution and without other pressures on food supply, biofuel may not have as much of an impact on food prices. Germany’s Environment Minister believes that the EU’s aim can be achieved without adding to soaring food prices and harming rainforests. 'We can meet the 10 per cent target through biofuel production in the European Union (and imports of) raw materials, which do not lead to a conflict with food or rainforests,' Sigmar Gabriel told reporters on the fringes of a meeting of EU environment ministers in Slovenia. However, it seems a wider solution involving world trade and dependency on western imports of the developing world may be required.

As biofuel production is in its early stages the impact can not yet be fully realized and although steps towards increasing the sustainability of biofuels may reduce negative impacts, only time will tell what the long term legacy of increased use of biofuels will be on the environment and the world population.

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