Are biofuels ‘green’?

There is a real desire now to find alternatives to fossil fuels and biofuels are increasingly seen as the answer but how green are they? This depends on whether the biofuel is first or second generation.

Agricultural crops (such as corn, sugar beet, palm oil and rapeseed) are currently the main source for biofuels. They are known as first-generation biofuels. Biodiesel represents around 80% of EU biofuel use.

Second-generation biofuels can be obtained from ligno-cellulosic or ‘woody’ sources (such as straw, timber, woodchips or manure), but these fibre-rich materials can only be converted into liquid biofuels via advanced technical processes, many of which are still under development.

Increasing concern about securing long-term energy supplies, combined with rising oil-prices and a number of fiscal and financial incentives have led to a major increase in biofuel production in the EU. The energy action plan for Europe now includes a 10% binding minimum biofuel target by 2020.

First-generation problems

So far, the EU has mainly focused on using more first-generation biofuels, such as biodiesel and bioethanol. However, an increasing number of doubts are being raised about this strategy:

  • Can first-generation biofuels really contribute to reducing GHG? In principle, biofuels are “carbon neutral”, but certain studies show that biofuels can actually produce more GHG than conventional fuels if one includes the emissions from agriculture, transport and processing involved in their production.
  • Can first-generation biofuels compete with traditional fossil fuels? EU-produced biodiesel just breaks even at oil prices around €60 per barrel, while bioethanol only becomes competitive with oil prices of about €90 per barrel.
  • Are first-generation biofuels driving up the price of food? Biodiesel production has significantly increased the consumption of rapeseed within the EU, driving the price of edible oils to record levels. Increased biofuel consumption is also likely to cause significant growth in the production and consumption of ethanol, pushing up the price of sugar.
  • Are first-generation biofuels greener than traditional fossil fuels? In order to reach its 10% biofuels target, Europe will have to rely on imports of ethanol from Brazil, where the Amazon is being burned to plant more sugar and soybeans and Indonesia where rainforest land is being cleared out to house palm oil plantations. Some environmental groups are already terming first-generation biofuels “deforestation diesel” – the opposite of the environmentally friendly fuel it is supposed to be.

An increasing number of voices are therefore calling on the EU to focus its attention on “second-generation” biofuels.

Second-generation hopes

Second-generation biofuels are seen as promising because:

  • They have a more favourable GHG balance compared to most current biofuels;
  • they can be produced at cost-competitive prices, especially if low-cost biomass is used;
  • they are able to use a wider range of biomass feedstocks; – they do not compete with food production, and;
  • they offer a better fuel quality than first-generation biofuels.

The main pathway for second-generation bioenergy production in the EU is gasification – also called the biomass-to-liquid (BTL) pathway. It uses high temperatures, controlled levels of oxygen, and chemical catalysts to convert biomass into liquid fuels, including synthetic diesel and di-methyl ether (DME).

Gasification plants will be able to exploit any carbonous raw-materials, e.g. forest industry residues, bark, biomass from fields, refuce-derived fuels and peat.

Opinions on the way forward

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas added: “Second generation biofuels seem to have much lower overall greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts than the first generation biofuels that dominate production in the EU today…They also offer higher potential for production and cost reductions, as they can be based on biowaste with fewer competing end-uses”. Although most governments believe that exploiting first-generation biofuels is a necessary step while awaiting further progress in second-generation biofuels, the Danish government is of the opinion that promotion of biofuels at the Community level should be concentrated around the development and marketing of the more cost-efficient second-generation biofuels.

Danish Environment Minister Connie Hedegaard has even criticised what she terms “the hype over biofuels”, saying: “People think that just because something gets a ‘bio’ label then it must be green.”

Volkswagen Chairman Dr. Bernd Pischetsrieder is calling on politicians to develop a tax model that gives second-generation biofuels preference, saying: “The present assessment regarding the sustainability of first and second-generation biofuels is entirely unsatisfactory, both in economic and environmental terms. One biofuel is not the same as another: some first-generation biofuels can best be described as a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’. Some of them have a worse CO2 balance than conventional gasoline fuels, but nevertheless still bear the name of ‘biofuel’. First-generation biofuels receive tax incentives from scarce budget resources and consequently constitute a bad investment. That cannot be considered sustainable in either the ecological or the economic sense of the word.”

Envrironmental groups also mention the importance of the second generation of biofuels. WWF points out that “demand for agricultural and other commodity feedstocks for first-generation bioenergy production is already dramatically changing production and trade patterns”, driving environmental changes and driving up food prices. It believes that investing in second-generation biofuels will lead to greater GHG reductions, larger potential cost benefits and more sustainable land use.

So, are biofuels green?

Not if they come from the first generation. For UK consumers the question is, should you use biodiesels at petrol stations such as those of Tesco and BP? Based on the evidence given above no you shouldn’t. You are better off using 100% petrol/diesel until second-generation sources come on stream.

But here’s the problem; soon all fuel will be required to contain a certain percentage of biofuel in the mix, up to 15%. This leaves the consumer with little choice and a major dilemma; not only will their fuel habit contribute to climate change, it will now also contribute to deforestation and the decimation of forest species such as the orangutan.

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3 Responses to Are biofuels ‘green’?

  1. Govind says:

    Before we start cultivating crops for generating biofuels…should we not first pause and think…have we cultivated enough to feed all the hungry mouths? A shift to energy cropping may or may not be a step towards cleaner, less polluting environment but it is certainly a decision that would increase hunger-deaths in the world.

  2. matt says:

    Absolutely. There are many policy makers in the UK and the EU who are concerned about the negative impacts of first generation biofuel crops.

    Take a look at http://www.biofuelwatch.org.uk/ . You can join their email list if you want. They send out email alerts every day packed full of news and info.

  3. Burton Haynes says:

    What a spectacular post! Really good post! 🙂

Comments are closed.