Britain's Royal Society issues negative report; European Union slows aggressive pro-biofuels policy; NYT column highlights social impacts of Brazil’s biofuels boom
by Craig Weatherby
Earlier this decade, the European Union (EU) set a goal of increasing renewable energy use by 20 percent by 2020, compared to 1990 levels, with ethanol made from so-called "biofuels" making up 10 percent of all transport fuels.
Today, the EU announced that it would propose strict conditions to ensure that biofuels used in the European market are produced in sustainable ways.
The main crops being used as biofuels are corn, soy, and sugarcane—to make ethanol for gasoline engines—and palm oil for diesel engines.
The EU announcement comes in reaction to growing, scientifically supported concerns about forests being cut to grow biofuels, and soaring food prices caused by farmland being used for energy crops.
Bio-fuels found unsustainable
Ethanol made from corn, soy, and sugarcane is touted as a part of the solution to global warming and US dependence on foreign oil.
There's no doubt that these so-called “biofuels” are renewable, and that the ethanol made from them is less polluting than petroleum products like diesel and gasoline.
But current commerical biofuels—especially corn, soy, and sugarcane—appear to be oversold. This is because petroleum-derived fertililzers, pesticides, herbicides, and energy are used to grow, harvest, and transport them, and to process them into ethanol.
By most calculations, their dependence on petroleum makes these biofuel crops net carbon contributors, and not as much help in halting global warming as they appear at first blush.
(And corn is a far less energy-efficient source of ethanol, compared with sugar cane.)
Even bigger concerns relate to the negative environmental and global-warming impacts of converting valuable agricultural land to growing fuel crops, especially in the Amazon and Indonesia. The rush to biofuels is also raising food prices as corn and soy fields are dedicated to crops for making ethanol.
President Bush famously talked about switchgrass, trees, and other fibrous, non-food biofuels, which require no inputs, in a State of the Union address. But it is much harder to extract energy from fibrous plants, so they remain unexploited sources of ethanol.
Royal Society affirms prior studies that cast doubts about biofuels
As we reported last week, an exhaustive study commission by the Swiss government burned off a mist of myths surrounding biofuels, revealing them as a Faustian bargain (See “Corn-Based Fuel Fares Poorly in New Analysis”).
Scientists at the Smithsonian Tropical Institute issued a report last year, which concluded that the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed by forests over 30 years would substantially exceed the emissions avoided by using biofuels grown on acreage taken from those same forests.
And earlier in 2007, a British study concluded that forests could absorb up to nine times more CO2 than the production of biofuels could achieve on the same area of land, and that the growth of biofuels was leading to more deforestation.
As the authors told the BBC, “In our view this [EU-mandated 10% minimum ethanol for transport fuel] is a mistaken policy because it is less effective than reforesting” (Righelato R, Spracklen DV 2007).
Today, Britain's Royal Society released a report that adds fuel to the biofuel controversy. The authors concluded that while certain biofuels may be beneficial, indiscriminate diversion of food crops to make ethanol could easily do more harm than good.
The report, titled Sustainable biofuels: prospects and challenges, found that too little was known about the benefits and costs of each biofuel crop, and called on the UK government to evaluate the overall environmental impact of biofuels, and not just their effect on cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
As the Royal Society authors wrote, “…biofuels have a potentially useful role in tackling the issues of climate change and energy supply. However… unless biofuel development is supported by appropriate policies and economic instruments then there is a risk that we may become locked into inefficient biofuel supply chains that potentially create harmful environmental and social impacts” (The Royal Society 2008).
Professor John Pickett, head of the study, made some key points in a Royal Society press release: “It is important to remember that one biofuel is not the same as another... The greenhouse gas savings of each depend on how crops are grown and converted and how the fuel is used. It's very important we don't aggravate the loss of natural habitat ...”
New York Times article highlights social impacts overseas
Last week, a column in The New York Times highlighted the human costs of the rush to fill fast-growing demand for ethanol from biofuels.
Four out of five new cars in Brazil are “flex-feul” vehicles that can run on ethanol or gasoline. And all gasoline in Brazil is about 25 percent ethanol, which accounts for more than 40 percent of automotive fuel consumption.
Times contributor Roger Cohen spoke with sugar cane workers in Brazil, who make between $8 and $13 a day: “Ethanol, renewable and relatively clean, is lovely. The life of the migrant Brazilian rural worker, finite and hot, is not. A new fuel should not carry oil’s frequent curse: the enrichment of a narrow elite.”
And as unpleasant as these jobs are, machines that plant and harvest are slowly displacing these prized, if punishing jobs.
He notes that the fate of biofuel field workers will depend on labor standards in the new ethanol industry.
As Mr. Cohen opined, “America must do its part, not least by freeing up its ethanol and sugar markets to imports. So must Brazil, by seeing a 35-year-old woman in the sun with children in need of education, and all the myriad people like them, through the billowing CO2-lite clouds of ethanol euphoria” (Cohen R 2008).
- The Royal Society. Sustainable biofuels: prospects and challenges. Accessed online January 14, 2008 at http://royalsociety.org/displaypagedoc.asp?id=28632
- The Royal Society. Government needs to drive biofuels in right direction warns Royal Society. Accessed online January 14, 2008 at http://royalsociety.org/news.asp?id=7367.
- Cohen R. Is Ethanol for Everybody? The New York Times, January 10, 2008. Accessed online January 14, 2008 at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/10/opinion/10cohen.html
- BBC. EU biofuel policy is a “mistake”. Accessed online January 14, 2008 at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/6949861.stm
- Righelato R, Spracklen DV. Environment. Carbon mitigation by biofuels or by saving and restoring forests? Science. 2007 Aug 17;317(5840):902.