Biofuels aren’t a sustainable solution

At first I wasn’t sure even if I had huge doubts. But now this is a certainty as I came accross three articles on how biofuels production in the United States, Brazil and Europe is a threat to our societies and our environment.

In Brazil, biofuels production are a danger to the Amazon rainforest as farmers are willing to cut trees to plant more and thus earn more. In America, 25 percent of the cereals grown are fed to cars.

This is enough to feed no less than 350 million people. As over a billion people are still starving around the globe I don’t call that a sustainable solution.

Additionally, the Guardian recently noted that  ” EU biofuels 10% targets cause millions of peope to go hungry and increase food prices and landlessness “. Here is a short extract from the article :

EU companies have taken millions of acres of land out of food production in Africa, central America and Asia to grow biofuels for transport, according to development campaigners. The consequences of European biofuel targets, said the report by ActionAid, could be up to 100 million more hungry people, increased food prices and landlessness.

So the United States and European Union’s goals on biofuels are making nearly half a billion people starve. Do we really need another reason to stop producing them ?

If your answer is “yes”, here is another reason : increased greenhouse gases emissions. Yes, biofuels production can lead to significant carbon dioxide emissions. To Ars Technica :

The study looked at the expansion of the two crops that are expected to drive biofuels growth in Brazil: sugarcane for ethanol, and soy beans for biodiesel. To reach the country’s 2020 goals, there will have to be a major increase in the production of both of those crops.

Even assuming major increases in the efficiency of their production (the authors assume an increase at double the rate of the past 20 years), there’s simply no way to get there without expanding the amount of land devoted to farming them, and there’s no way to do that without secondary consequences.

(…) Instead, the authors project that over 160,000 square kilometers of native habitat (over 120,000 of that forest) would be converted into rangeland. That process would liberate lots of carbon currently sequestered by those habitats.

It is high time countries with aggressive biofuels policies stop this. We can’t claim to be working on building a sustainable society with biofuels like these. Perhaps second generation biofuels are more sustainable, but I lack data on that topic.

However I believe electricity is perfect to fuel cars. Because we can produce huge amounts of electricity without too much problems and as electric cars – bikes and trucks as well – are more efficient than their internal combution engines counterparts.

Of course, we will need to be less reliant on cars and the alternatives will have to be developed but it is not as if we were short of options (thnk of carsharing, carpooling, biking mass transportation and so on).

By Edouard

Edouard is a sustainability and energy professional committed to bringing our societies to a carbon neutral future. He has been writing on related topics on this very blog since 2007.

5 comments

  1. Biofuel is a bad idea anyway because combustion engines are a bad idea.

    Even if modern motors are better than their ancestors and motor engineers never cease to amaze me, combustion engine will always have a very bad efficiency. Most of the energy of the fuel being transformed into heat.

    The other important thing to keep in mind is that fuel, even if it is biofuel is rare, and burning something rare is never a very good idea.

  2. Thanks Gimly for your comment. I couldn’t agree more.

    As I noted previously electric engines are up to five times more efficient than combustion engines. That’s quite a lot.

    Your comment make me think that half -or more – the oil we burn everyday is for transportation. That would be nice if we could stop doing that as soon as possible.

    Oil has so many other uses where it can’t be replaced (plastic, fertilizers…)

    I look forward to reading your next comment ! 😉

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