From CopperWikiBio-fuels are the new global obsession. The New York Times described them as the ‘modern day gold rush.’ These plant-based fuels were originally considered better than fossil fuels because the carbon they released when burnt was offset by the carbon these plants would absorb when they grew.
However, on closer scrutiny scientists found that if the full emissions costs of producing these “green” fuels were taken into account, bio-fuels caused more greenhouse gas emissions than conventional fuels
This led to growing skepticism about the potential of a new bio-fuel economy to replace the present fossil-fuel-driven economy. There are two issues concerning the current bio-fuels debate. The Food Security issue and the environmental issue.
Food crops, particularly grains, are expected to be produced more for bio-fuels than for food or feedstock. The United States accounts for some 40 percent of the world's total corn production and over half of all corn exports. The country's thrust into using corn to produce ethanol is sending shock waves through the world food system. Even a marginal price rise will be difficult to absorb for those millions of people whom the World Bank identified in 2001 as living on the equivalent of less than $2 a day.
And secondly, though promoted as a 'clean' energy source, various studies on their efficiency and life-cycle from production to use to emission tend to show otherwise.
Third Dimension to Controversy
A third dimension to the controversy is the perception that alternative fuels are being developed to protect and prolong the currently predominant modes and patterns of production and consumption. In this sense it becomes evident to many that the real objective of developing alternative fuel is not to save the planet but to find new ways to confront falling profit rates on a global level.
Biofuel is not a new source of energy. It has been accessed by the poor both for household energy and as source of income, especially for women. Across the world it has been used on a small scale by many communities. During the Japanese occupation in South-East Asia, many rural communities, having no access to kerosene, used oil extracted from Jatropha curcas, coconut and castor beans for lighting lamps at night and for cooking. More recently, many communities across the Pacific, such as in the Marshall Islands and Bougainville, have been using coconut oil to fuel vehicles.
The current hype around bio-fuels, which the whole world is excited about, is on a different course. It has taken been on a large industrial scale, within the international market dimension in an increasingly globalized world.
The Environmental Debate
The environmental debate revolves round a very simple logic. Growing plants take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen back into the atmosphere, and the burning of the bio-fuels produced from them just reverses that process. When we burn coal, oil, or gas, we send into the atmosphere carbon that has been dormant underground for millions of years, and increase the total atmospheric carbon burden. When we burn bio-fuel we are burning carbon that has recently been removed from the atmosphere by the very plants we are burning.
Also, ironically, industrial production of bio-fuels will require fossil fuel to keep the processing plants working and to keep the trucks and tankers running to transport the end products to the market.
A school of researchers and analysts believe that whatever savings are effected in greenhouse gas emissions will be more than offset by the increased use of fossil fuel for industrial-scale bio-fuel production.
A study at the Cornell University and the University of California at Berkeley making ethanol from corn requires 29% more fossil fuel than the net energy produced and bio-diesel from soy results in a net energy loss of 27%.
New Research on Maize and Rapeseed
In the US the main crop for ethanol is maize, whose industrial production has overtaken its use as food. In Europe rapeseed accounts for 80 percent of bio-fuels production.
New research suggests that annual crops such as rapeseed and maize require significant inputs of nitrogen-based fertilizers and this in turn will lead to higher N2O emissions. N2O is a major greenhouse gas. Although it has a lower warming effect than CO2, it persists in the atmosphere for longer.
Jumping the bio-fuels bandwagon
The scenario is one of jumping the bio-fuels bandwagon. Demand for biofuels is expected to soar as industrialized nations which signed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol look for new ways to reduce carbon emissions to abide by treaty commitments. The European Union says it wants 5.75% of its transport fuel to come from biofuel by 2010.
The United States - which hasn't ratified the Kyoto agreement - is committed to increasing its annual biofuel production from the current 2 billion gallons to 5 billion gallons by 2012.
In Developing Countries
Many developing countries too are turning to bio-fuels to satisfy the developed countries. Malaysia is already the world’s largest producer of bio-diesel with major markets in the Europe Union.
Brazil is using half its annual sugarcane crop to provide 40% of its auto fuel, while accelerating deforestation to grow more sugarcane and soybeans. Malaysian and Indonesian rainforests are being bulldozed for oil palm plantations - threatening endangered orangutans, rhinos, tigers and countless other species. All in order to serve the booming European market for Bio-Diesel.
A study in 2007 found that bio-fuels derived from rapeseed and maize produce up to 70 per cent and 50 per cent more greenhouse gases respectively than fossil fuels. The scientists also found that these bio-fuels from rapeseed and maize converted 3 to 5 percent of the fertilizer used in their production as nitrous oxide and emitted in the atmosphere. This has caused added concerns as it is believed that nitrous oxide is 296 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
Producing Food to Feed Cars
The current food crisis had added further fuel to the practice of using food crops for fuel as it harms the world's most impoverished people. Many feel that while we are busy producing food to feed cars, we may see thousands of human beings starving to death. The dining table is the rightful place where a bushel of corn should end up and not in the gas tank.
According to the International Food Policy Research Institute, Washington, about 30 percent of U.S. corn production this year will be used for ethanol. It is estimated that between 25 percent and 33 percent of the increase in food prices between 2000 and 2006 is driven by the bio-fuels effect.
Cereal and Energy Prices Linked
In a December 2007, the International Food Policy Research Institute warned that world cereal and energy prices were becoming increasingly linked. Wheat and petroleum prices have tripled since 2000, while corn and rice prices have nearly doubled. The Institute predicted that if the same amount of investment in bio-fuels is maintained, international corn prices will increase by 26 percent and the prices of vegetable oil seeds will rise by 18 percent. If the current level of production is doubled, corn prices could rise by 72 percent and oil seeds by 44 percent.
With the huge concern over rising food prices due to competition for fuel production, a new generation of bio-fuels produced from agricultural and timber wastes is being explored but has yet to become commercially viable.
Other crops, touted as solutions to the apparent diseconomy of current methods, offer even worse results. Switchgrass, apparently, is a good source of fuel as it grows on marginal land and does not compete with food. But it requires 45% more energy to harvest and process than the energy value of the fuel that is produced. Wood biomass requires 57% more energy than it produces, and sunflowers require more than twice as much energy as is available in the fuel that is produced.
The bio-fuels revolution needs to turn to biotech companies for increased agricultural production with genetically engineered crops. Bio-Fuels from GM Crops could save good crop for human consumption while using the genetically modified versions for production of biofuels.
Smart Bio-Fuels Crops
Another way of producing bio-fuels, without compromising on their food security, or causing environmental damage, is vigorous adoption of Smart Bio-Fuels Crops such as sweet sorghum, switchgrass, alfalfa, pongamia, and algae.
It is feared that large-scale cultivation of crops for bio-fuels will trigger intense competition for agricultural resources and will increase competition between food and bio-fuel production. Satellite data reveal that 40 percent of the earth's land is already used up for agriculture. Demand for water for agricultural purposes, which is already consuming 93% of the world's available fresh water supply, will also increase, leading to a global Water Crisis.
With all the frenzy notwithstanding, experts believe that even if high-yield bio-fuel crops were grown on all the farmlands on earth, only 20 percent of the total fuel requirement of the world will be met. And in the process thousand will be deprived of their basic food items.
- Rapeseed biofuel produces more greenhouse gas
- Bio-fuels: An illusion and a threat
- Controversy over bio-fuels grows