Climate Action

Biofuel controversy explodes as new concerns emerge

The debate hosted by ActionAid last night highlighted some of the humanitarian, environmental and practical concerns facing the biofuel industry.

  • 17 February 2010
  • Simione Talanoa

Biofuel is becoming an increasingly controversial topic as more comprehensive tests are devised to understand its environmental impact. The debate hosted by ActionAid last night highlighted some of the humanitarian, environmental and practical concerns facing biofuel.

Because biofuel is a blanket term that encompasses a diverse range of sources-from food products that include wheat, sugar, maize and rapeseed oil to budding technologies that make fuel from organic waste products (dubbed second generation biofuels) or algae (known as third generation).

The majority of the biofuel we produce and consume today is derived from first generation food products fermented into ethanol.

This benefits of this type of biofuel has come into doubt. Analysts agree on two major points-our ethanol consumption will increase significantly by 2020, and as a result food prices will also increase.

Humanitarians are concerned that the poorest people in the world will be most affected by the food increase, and even a price increase as small as 5% will force already undernourished peoples to starve.

A staggering 80% of a poor family's income might be dedicated to acquiring food. In addition, many local farmers are being pushed off of their land and under-compensated by large biofuel corporations.

At the same time, environmental concerns have reached a higher pitch, as new studies reveal fertilisers release NO2 into the atmosphere-a gas that is 300x worse than CO2.

Biodiversity and climate change are also effected by land conversion to grow biofuel crops-once a farm is converted to produce fuel instead of food, the demand for food still exists. Thus, more farmland is required, and deforestation is a likely consequence.

But the news isn't all bad for ethanol advocates. Ethanol has led to many breakthroughs in sustainability measurement.

Greg Archer, co-author of the Gallagher review and participant in the debate, believes that we have enough arable land already dedicated to agricultural use to provide the world with enough fuel, feed, and food. With proper land-management we can increase crop yields while keeping the environment intact, making damaging land conversion unnecessary.

Archer also added that the research done on biofuel sustainability has allowed for an unprecedented understanding of the problems we face, and that the same management practices applied to biofuels can be extended to other industries, and the rest of the agricultural sector in the future to increase land efficiency.

Biofuel agriculture is regulated more stringently than many other crops.

"The focus needs to shift from producing the highest volume of biofuel possible onto producing biofuel that is safe and sustainable. We need to move past whether biofuel is good or bad and onto improving what we have."

New research will likely alter the way businesses and governments can approach ethanol; ethanol simply isn't the simple solution it was first touted and hoped to be. Markets will adapt to the policies pursued, which will still focus around the EU pledge to make renewable fuels account for 10% of energy consumption by 2020.


Author: Michael Good | Climate Action

Image Provided by: Michael Good | Climate Action