Animals & Wildlife Magazine

Biofuels, More Harm Than Good?

By Frontiergap @FrontierGap

A United Nations report, set to be published this week is to say that fuels made from crops harm the environment and drive up food prices.

Biofuels, more harm than good?

Image courtesy of shankar s.

Biofuels, previously heralded as a solution to climate change and the impending oil crisis will be labelled harmful to the environment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. A draft of the report leaked by the Telegraph states that “Increasing bioenergy crop cultivation poses risks to ecosystems and biodiversity.” For the first time concerns voiced by activists regarding destruction of forests and other important habitats for biofuel feedstock have been factored into their report.

It was calculated that 1.33 billion litres of biofuel were consumed in the UK for the 12 months to April 2013. The European Union currently mandates that 5% of fuel used in transport is sourced from renewable areas and this is set to rise to 10% by 2020. The International Energy Agency predicts that fuels derived from crops, oilseeds and biomass will make up 27% of transport fuel by 2050. The report notes that this large scale expansion would either require mass conversion of existing agricultural land or large-scale destruction of forests. Most of this expansion is expected to take place in developing nations and on land with the highest biodiversity.

The study will state that the amount of habitat converted for biofuel growth, especially for oil palm and soybean production in South East Asia and Latin America has increased by a factor of 5 in the last 20 years. It is estimated that 214 hectares of primary forest are converted into plantations every hour, by definition turning a diverse forest into monoculture. It also negates much of the benefits of biofuels through releasing carbon stored in the soil. In Malaysia and Indonesia in particular deforestation for palm oil is threatening endangered species such as the Orangutan and the Bornean Rhino. Destruction of rainforest and the cerrado savannah habitats in Brazil have also lead to reduced water quality in large cities downstream as ecosystem services associated with forests are also destroyed.

First generation biofuels, where oils are extracted directly from plants such as date palms and soy beans, or fermented from starches in the grains of crops such as corn or sugar cane now supply 5-10% of the world’s energy needs and are classed as carbon neutral as any Carbon Dioxide released in their combustion was previously taken in during the plant’s lifetime. However; biofuels take away grain from human and livestock food chains.  The increase in diverting soybean production for fuel partly blamed for the incidence of food price rises, leading to worldwide riots in 2009; the industry now causes an estimated 30 million people to go hungry every year. Furthermore a study by the international institute of international development estimated that 92% of the carbon taken in by the plants is emitted through deforestation and production of fertilisers and pesticides.

Second generation biofuels may be a better option and are sourced from inedible biomass of the crop, food waste or trees such as willow and poplar and are considered less damaging to the environment, the holy grail of biofuels would be third generation bioethanol and biodiesel produced from genetically modified algae from open ponds and photobioreactors in the desert. It is hoped that these will supplant first generation fuels in the future but further development is needed as it is not thought to be economically viable for another 25 years.

The United Nations report recommends that future biofuels plantations should be planted on already degraded land, managing and designing plantations to promote biodiversity and even paying for the ecosystem services provided by biodiverse areas. But the ultimate way to limit biofuels would be to reduce the current subsidies farmers get for growing them and increase investment in other renewable sources of energy.

By Alex Caldwell

Find out more about Frontier'sEnvironmental Conservationprojects.

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