Biofuels: Drive Your Energy Further or Driver of Poverty and Deforestation?

This bus runs on biodiesel derived from soy beans. It is commonly assumed that biofuels are an eco-friendly alternative to fossil fuels, such as oil and coal.

Biofuels could be considered a renewable fuel source. Derived from vegetable oils and plant matter such as sugar cane, it is thought that these produce overall lower emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases due to the offset and storage of carbon during its production (i.e the growth of organic material).

Biofuels are also an attractive option for energy production owing to dwindling fossil fuel resources, which are often located in increasingly politically unstable areas. However it is likely that as ice over the Arctic Ocean retreats further, new oil sources will soon become viable, which will alter the proportion of oils sourced in regions such as the Middle East. Biofuels also have the advantage that they are relatively cheap to produce, making them an ideal source of energy in developing countries.

Another possible advantage to biofuels is that their production does not require the extensive drilling, mining and refining processes associated with fossil fuels such as oil and coal. These processes have the potential to contaminate the surrounding environment. Arguably, however, the manufacture of biofuels requires an equally damaging infrastructure: the vast amount of land required for biofuel crop growth.

Issues of food security have also been raised due to fields of biofuel crops replacing those of grain, as premium land is required to grow the oil or sugar-rich biofuel crops. Economic subsides to encourage land use for biofuel production are thought to be the cause of spikes in food prices in recent years. However, other factors such as environmental disasters also are at least partially to blame. Biofuels are thought to have contributed significantly to this growing food security problem due to a constantly expanding global demand for food but decreased land availability, as more farmers diversify into the comparatively profitable biofuel industry. Such spikes in prices are extremely problematic and potentially fatal to those surviving just above the breadline, and who are also uninvolved in subsistence farming. Some solutions to this problem have been posed, for instance, “second gen” biofuels, or use of the non-edible parts of food crops for biofuels, which would mean both food and fuel could be grown in the same space.

Deforestation is already a growing problem. Land-intensive biofuel production is further encouraging rainforest removal.

Rainforest removal for biofuel plantation development is another major problem. Some attempts have been made to limit deforestation with new government legislation, but this may have come too late as large swathes of forest have already been removed in countries such as Borneo in the name of “environmentally friendly” biofuel and palm oil production.

Recent studies published in journals such as Nature have also found that the carbon emissions from biofuels, such as sugar cane-derived ethanol, are not as low as it is generally thought. In fact, biofuels emit several times the volume of air pollution than previously reported, largely due to the practice of burning fields to ease the harvesting process of the crops. There are also supplementary “hidden” carbon emissions associated with biofuels that need to be totted up: the energy required for their planting, transport and processing. Consequently, this suggests that biofuels may not be any more environmentally friendly than regular diesel or petroleum during production, and if they do emit less pollution, it is to a minimal extent.

The argument that biofuel production provides local people with valuable opportunities for employment has also been used to suggest that this is a preferable alternative to conventional fossil fuels. However, the potential benefits of biofuel manufacture are further cast into doubt, as the working conditions in this industry are often very poor indeed.

To sum up, although biofuels in the past have been viewed as a future alternative to fossil fuels without the emissions, increasingly this has found to be a misconception. If biofuel production has driven further deforestation of (the already widely degraded) tropical rainforests, globally important carbon sinks and ecologically diverse regions, then they cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered “green”. Similarly, if their production drives up food prices and introduces badly paid employment where people are poorly treated, it cannot be considered a good thing for those less fortunate, or the overall political and economic stability of developing countries. I am in no way an advocate of the oil industry, but if this “alternative” does nothing but worsen people’s lives and encourage further carbon emissions through deforestation and field burning, really what is the point? Is a turn towards conventional oil drilling the better alternative? At least with crude oil people can afford to eat!

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