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Should We Be Bearish On Biofuels?

What’s happening? Researchers have said biofuels are not viable alternatives to fossil fuels because they need land, water and energy and result in larger carbon footprints than gasoline vehicles. The team at the University of Twente in the Netherlands compared the carbon, land and water footprints of gasoline, biofuel, bioelectricity and solar-generated electricity or hydrogen. They said even hydrogen and battery-electric vehicles still use energy sourced from fossil fuel power plants. Only a complete transformation to EVs would cut emissions by 96% for those using bioelectricity and by 100% for those using solar-generated electricity, said the researchers.

Why does this matter? The study demonstrates how some perceived environmental solutions also come with their own problems.

While biofuel production can deliver rural development and employment, there is growing evidence its production involves environmental trade-offs.

Some argue biofuels to be “carbon neutral”, maintaining the carbon released upon combustion was already absorbed from the atmosphere when the plant was grown. Yet, this calculation usually excludes emissions from used fertilisers and from fossil fuels burned during the collection and transportation of biomass. In some cases it's argued biofuels have even emitted more carbon than the fuels they substitute.

Where land is claimed for biofuel production, carbon stocks are interrupted through loss of below-ground biomass and soil organic carbon. Land use change can be direct – where biofuel production leads to cropland expansion – or indirect, where croplands are diverted to biofuel production resulting in deforestation elsewhere. 

Additionally, water, a basic commodity for some countries, represents an increasingly scarce resource in others. As the above study shows, lifecycle water inputs for biofuel production are vastly higher – up to 683 times greater – than for fossil fuels and other alternatives.

Solar and wind technologies slated to power future electrified transport also alter ecosystems and landscapes but have been shown by studies to generate significantly more power per hectare of land than biofuels, while having a smaller climate impact.

Nick Finegold is Founder & CEO of Curation Corp, an emerging and peripheral risks monitoring service.


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