Biofuels: more harm than good?

11th November 2012

H2h 1

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Author Mark Lynas and Gloria Gaupmann from the European Renewable Ethanol Association debate the environmental impacts of using biofuels

Mark Lynas
Author of two major books on climate change

Energy policy is a complicated issue, and there is no room for simplistic generalisations. All forms of generation have costs and benefits whose inherent trade-offs need to be properly considered. The advantage of liquid biofuel is that it can substitute for the oil-derived fossil fuels currently used in almost all forms of transport.

However, biofuels have a fundamental constraint in that they compete for scarce land and water with food crops. In some cases this competition leads to serious problems. With something like 40% of the corn grown in the US going into ethanol production for cars, there can be little doubt that this ill-conceived government-mandated policy is driving up world food prices, especially in a relatively poor harvest year such as this one. The impact will be directly felt by the world’s poor. In its last report in October, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimated that 870 million people around the world are suffering from chronic undernourishment.

There is undoubtedly a link between biofuels and food supply, although admittedly a complex one, not least because most of the non-ethanol US corn crop goes to animal feeds, not directly into human foodstuffs.

The limits that land availability places on biofuels are severely constraining, and probably mean that biofuels can only ever be a niche source of decarbonised fuels. To give just one example, the energy expert Chris Goodall has calculated that funnelling the UK’s entire cereal and oilseed crop into liquid biofuels production would replace just 60% of the country’s aviation kerosene demand – to say nothing of cars, trucks and shipping.

In essence, biofuels represent solar energy captured in plants, an inherently inefficient process – in land-use terms, if not in terms of carbon emissions. Fossil fuels are superior because they come from underground and represent solar energy stored millions of years ago, not subtracted from current biological production. Even in straightforward greenhouse-gas terms, there are serious questions about the climate benefits of biofuels. There can be little doubt that liquid biofuels produced from palm oil grown on deforested Malaysian soils are worse for the climate than the fossil fuels they replace.

Furthermore, indirect land-use change may result from the increased pressure on food crops, meaning that land is ploughed up in one place to replace lost production elsewhere. This is very difficult to quantify, but it undoubtedly happens.

We live in an interconnected world, where actions in one place will have unintended consequences in another. Biofuels production inherently conflicts with food production and nature conservation – this trade-off can be minimised and managed, but it can’t be eliminated.

Gloria Gaupmann
Director for environmental affairs at ePURE, the European Renewable Ethanol Association

Creating fuels from crops can understandably cause some concern with regards competition for food stocks. However, EU producers must adhere to stringent environmental regulation and there are certification schemes ensuring that fuels produced are sustainable.

Far from taking swathes of land away from agricultural food production, Europe’s growing ethanol industry is, in the main, using land that is no longer used for food production.

In recent decades, the European agricultural sector has experienced a steady and significant reduction in the amount of arable land it uses. That process is continuing and, according to both the FAO and the European Commission, by 2020 the EU will be using 5.5 million hectares less of arable land than in 2010. The main effect EU biofuel consumption has had on this process has been the reuse of recently abandoned agricultural land. It has also reduced the rate of land abandonment across the continent.

The recent Common Agricultural Policy proposal to exclude 7% of agricultural land from production will result in 3.7 million hectares of land no longer used for growing food crops. This represents 20 million tonnes of cereals, equal to the total amount exported by the EU this year.

The proposal underlines that food producers and biofuel makers are not competing for the same land. There is enough for both.

In 2012, the EU will use 3 million tonnes of corn and 4.6 million tonnes of wheat in ethanol production – just 2.5% of total European grain production. Moreover, the production of ethanol also generates a valuable co-product that is used in animal feed, enabling EU farmers to source it locally, rather than importing it from countries where there are little or no sustainability criteria in place.

Bioethanol production uses only the starch elements of the grain, whereas the proteins are passed on to the feed and food sectors. Every 1,000kg grain used to create ethanol produces 294kg of ethanol, 330kg of high-protein animal feed, 276kg of carbon dioxide – an important feedstock for the food sector (for example, in the production of fizzy drinks) and 100 litres of water.

This means that about one-third of the grain set aside for ethanol production enters the food production supply chain.

Currently, Europe imports a total of 40 million tonnes of soymeal from South America for its animal feed sector. European biofuels production can replace 13 million tonnes of these imports with locally and sustainably-produced animal feed, preventing potential land-grabbing or deforestation in South America where environmental protection rules are less strict.


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