For greener biofuels

Energy Crisis

For greener biofuels


Just in case you thought it was safe to stop thinking about biofuels, here comes another study. This time into ethical aspect of using the fuel. Can a new generation of biofuels ensure we don’t increase greenhouse gas emissions and take food from the poor to fuel our cars? The UK Nuffield Council on Bioethics (NCB) launched a consultation calling for anyone and everyone’s views on biofuels – right from ethanol to futuristic synthetic hydrocarbons created from algae.

Any better than fossil fuels?

The story of biofuels is well-told among environmentalists. Hailed as a sustainable way to produce liquid fuels for transport, their promise quickly began to fade as the inadvertent effects of growing crops began to spoil claims made by manufacturers. First generation biofuels are made from food crops including sugarcane, soy or wheat. In some cases, however, the net greenhouse gas emissions from these (once transportation and processing were taken into account) were no significant improvement than burning the fossil fuels they replaced.

In addition, using food crops meant that farmers found a more lucrative market for their crops. Tortilla wars and rising food prices in general started to raise alarm bells. In the UK, the Gallagher review suggested a slowdown of the UK’s Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation.

The obligation forced fuel suppliers to mix 2.5 per cent biofuels into road transport fuel they sold in 2008-09. It proposes, that this target will increase by 1.25 per cent per year to five per cent in 2010-11.

Beyond the UK, at a European level, a critical report by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre — ‘Biofuels in the European Context: Facts and Uncertainties’, has caused havoc with EU targets. There’s also further research suggesting that fertiliser used to grow biofuels can also be a significant source of greenhouse gases.

However, despite all these problems with the first generation biofuels, the NCB reckons second-generation fuels are much more interesting. “Research into new types of biofuels looks more promising,” says Joyce Tait, chairman of the NCB’s working party on biofuels.
According to him, rather than using food crops, science may devise a way to use algae, trees, the inedible ‘woody’ parts of plants, and agricultural waste to produce biofuels in future. He adds, “Scientists are working to increase the yield of biofuel crops and improve the production process, in order to maximise energy output of land and reduce net greenhouse gas emissions.”


Chalking alternatives

Before these new technologies are brought to life, Tait feels society must think soon about how it can avoid problems of first generation biofuels. He says, “We also want to find out how consumers feel about moving towards a greater use of biofuels. People’s attitude will have a major impact on whether biofuels can successfully become part of the energy mix.”

The council will look at the displacement of local communities from land given over to biofuel production and stories of poor conditions for workers, and environmental pollution. “We want to ensure that the ethical dimension is taken into account and make sure that the production of new types of biofuels, especially in developing counties, has a positive effect on local communities and it supports economic development by creating jobs and new sources of income,” explains Tait.

The NCB wants to hear from anyone with a personal or professional interest in biofuels, both from developing and developed countries – the deadline for responses is March 15. The final report, meanwhile, with recommendations for policy makers, will be published some time before the end of 2010.

Meanwhile, scientists at the European commission have cast doubt on whether biofuels could ever be produced sustainably in significant quantities — a blow to the aviation industry, which sees such fuel as a key way to reduce its emissions. Researchers argue that greenhouse gases emitted in making biofuel may well negate most of the carbon dioxide savings made by replacing fossil fuels. Of particular concern is the uncertainty over emissions of the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide.

The road transport industry is also keen to increase the use of biofuels, and an EU directive last year requires 10 per cent of all road transport fuel to come from plants by 2020. Theoretically, the fuels are carbon-neutral. When burned they only release the carbon dioxide they absorbed while the plants were growing.

Campaigners argue biofuels are not as sustainable as they seem and say more biofuels would mean the destruction of virgin forests and the release of their stored carbon to create agricultural land. Heinz Ossenbrink, of the EC’s Institute of Energy (IoE), says that research carried out by EU-funded scientists increasingly pointed to a long-term problem for large-scale biofuels use, namely the emissions of nitrous oxide.

This is about 270 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas and is released through use of fertilisers to grow biofuel crops. “A few earlier  studies don’t take that into account,” he points out. Adding further he says, “We have now come to less positive values for biofuels.”

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change does consider the production of nitrous oxide when deciding on the sustainibility of particular biofuels, but errors in its calculations are known to be large. “That’s because there’s such a huge local variation. Emissions could double from one end of the field to the other, hundreds of times between fields in the same country and thousands of times around the world,” says Robert Edwards, of the renewable energies unit at the IoE.

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