Biofuels will serve the interests of large industrial groups rather than helping to cut carbon emissions and ward off climate change, according to research to be published in the International Journal of Environment and Health this month.
Simone Vieri of the University “La Sapienza” of Rome, Italy, explains that the European Union has focused attention on first-generation biofuels with the aim of cutting greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels. First-generation biofuels are defined as those obtained from the conversion of plant material which can be grown specifically for fuel production, such as corn, soy, sugarcane or palm oil. Sugars, starches, oils and fats can be extracted from such plants and chemically converted into biofuels.
Second-generation biofuels, on the other hand, can be derived from agricultural and forestry waste, which one might consider a more sustainable approach. Microbes are used to extract sugars from lignin and cellulose for conversion into biofuels.
A third generation of biofuels might be derived from genetically modified conifers or vegetables engineered to produce fuel-type substances and precursors much more efficiently. There is also a putative fourth generation in which engineered microbes absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or from industrial gases and generate new fuel gases.
“At the moment, the most widely used are first generation biofuels, second generation biofuels lagging way behind. The other two categories are still far (third generation) or very far (fourth generation) from being able to be implemented in a financially successful way,” explains Vieri.
The EU anticipates that first-generation biofuels will make up 10% of fuel use by 2020. Unfortunately, adds Vieri this is likely to increase volatility in agricultural prices as well as having a negative impact on food security for less privileged regions as land is turned over to growing fuel crops rather than food. The adoption of first generation biofuels will, he says, “favour the interests and profit strategies of a restricted number of big industrial groups, rather than to the claimed general environmental objectives.”
Vieri adds that the “green economy” model might break new ground if it were to prove able to facilitate reduced emissions and allow economic growth and development with direct benefit to society itself rather than the profits of multinationals.
“Biofuels and EU’s choices” in Int. J. Environment and Health, 2012, 6, 155-169