The Biofuels Controversy
The Biofuels Controversy

Earth

Arguments over Ethanol are heating up.


The EU intends to reduce greenhouse gases by mandating 10% of transportation fuel to come from biofuels – but critics say this will damage the environment and create dramatic social problems in developing countries. Huge forests have been cleared in countries like Argentina to plant soya beans, and carbon rich peat lands in Indonesia have been cleared for oil palm plantations. To discourage this, the EU wants to make it illegal to source biofuels from crops in nature reserves or recently clear-cut forests –  but certification is easily manipulated in developing countries. It appears that Europeans will pay Euro 33-65 billion in subsidies by 2020 to promote biofuels – yet they do not want their taxes to support illegal logging in tropical rainforests (Spiegel Online International, 23 January 2008).

Few things prompt the US to forget its belief in the efficiency of free markets faster than $100-a-barrel oil. The US Congress recently issued new mandates that should more than double the supply of corn-derived ethanol to 15 billion gallons by 2015. Whether grown in the developing world or the developed world, biofuels suffer from three problems: (i) rising corn prices are already making food unaffordable for the poor, (ii) Corn-based Ethanol actually increases the release of greenhouse gases over the plant's life cycle; and (iii) with limited arable land, fertilizer use is likely to increase, and nitrogen fertilizer has 296 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide. (The Guardian, 12 February 2008).
 

Second-generation biofuels that can use the entire cellulose of plants, rather than just the carbohydrate rich seeds or sugary juice, seem to be the solution. Crop residues, switchgrass, timber offcuts, bagasse from sugar refining and other "waste" sources can be converted to energy using a more complex set of chemical processes that are now being developed. However, care must be taken that the "waste" materials are really waste. Reducing the return of organic residues to fields may increase soil erosion and alter soil structure, starving grasses that require massive energy inputs. (Sustainable biofuels: prospects and challenges, January 2008 - royalsociety.org).

Fortunately, Washington also is mandating cellulosic biofuels, made from prairie grass, wood chips, and agricultural waste, to produce 500 million gallons of cellulosic biofuel by 2012, one billion gallons by 2013, and 16 billion gallons by 2022. It looks like first generation biofuels may be just a temporary bandaid and much more effort is required to develop second generation biofuel technology using genuine waste products, such as sewage sludge or municipal solid waste. At least we know that this would not take food from the plates of the poor to fill gas guzzling SUVs.
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