Backfiring Biofuels: Are They Really Renewable?

August 10th is International Biodiesel Day – a day originally created to celebrate adoption of non-traditional fuels. But, some of these biofuels have been proven to be more damaging to the environment than initially imagined. Despite this data, a problematic push for “green” biofuel continues globally.

While the original intent to use biofuels was to reduce emissions, using some of them may effectively be doing the opposite.

Biofuel is an umbrella term referring to the multiple classifications of fuels derived directly from living matter. Often made from corn, sugar cane, wheat, soy, palm oil and other agricultural materials, biodiesel and ethanol are two of the most popular types of biofuels. Both kinds can be made from wastes and not virgin materials which reduces their impacts. Compared to traditional fossil fuels, biofuels are cleaner at the pipe and many emit less greenhouse gases (GHG). However, the acceptance of biofuels as a truly renewable energy source is increasingly questioned.

A Very Brief History

A decade ago, many believed that their potential for reducing emissions characterized biofuels as a silver bullet to solve climate change. Blending biofuel with traditional fossil fuels was an easy way to embrace renewable energy and to target greenhouse gas reduction goals. Since the year 2000, there has been more than a 650% increase in the global daily production of biofuels. Without intervention, this trend is likely to continue. In 2017, the U.S. mandated through the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) that approximately 25 billion gallons of biofuel are to be mixed into traditional fuels, more than a 200% increase from 2008. Around the world, countries have established targets to continually increase the amount of biofuels blended into fossil fuels.

Corn and Palm Oil Harvest

Renewable or Refutable?

Sage grouse are threatened by land conversion in the U.S.

A persistent debate about the negative effects of biofuel calls into question the benefits of this resource. Throughout the last decade, the push for biofuel production increased demand for food crops like corn, palm oil, and soy, leading to destructive deforestation and land conversion across the globe. In the United States alone, over 7 million acres of native prairie, wetlands, rangeland, and forests were converted to cropland in large part for biofuel products from 2008 to 2012. Similarly, in Malaysia and Indonesia, about 2.5 million acres of tropical soils were lost due to palm oil production for biodiesel.

Biofuel Backlash

These alarming rates of land conversion for growing crops for biofuels have devastating results. Habitat loss endangers wildlife populations that depend on these ecosystems for basic survival. In the United States, the Prairie Pothole Region is threatened, putting more than 60% of the country’s waterfowl population at risk. In Indonesia and Malaysia, elephants, tigers, and orangutans are only a few of the species critically endangered as a result of palm oil expansion. The consequence of irresponsible biofuel production directly threatens global biodiversity.

Land cleared for palm oil

Studies have concluded that when accounting for land conversion within the life cycle of crop-based biofuels, they create significantly more greenhouse gas emissions than traditional fossil fuels – some studies reporting that biofuels which cause deforestation produce up to 80% more GHG emissions. When crucial carbon ‘sinks’ like forests, native grasslands, and peatlands are depleted, their ability to sequester carbon from the atmosphere is also eliminated. While the original intent was to reduce emissions, using crop based biofuels may effectively be doing the opposite.

Moving Forward

Wind farm

It isn’t all bad, though. Some biofuels are certified as ‘sustainable,’ and these can play an essential role in industries that do not have viable alternatives to liquid fuels, like aviation and marine shipping. There is a renewed interest to move away from biofuels derived from corn and palm oil, and to move instead towards biofuels that use waste materials like used cooking oil and municipal solid waste. Certification by the global Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB) ensures that biofuel production incorporates proper social, environmental, and ethical safeguards. It is important to recognize that biofuels are not the silver bullet that was once hoped, but we can look to the RSB eco-label as a guide, and push for changes in U.S. biofuels law (see Take Action Now, below). We must also continue pushing for renewable power, electric vehicles, energy efficient buildings, and other ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

If you care about bringing back vanishing North American wildlife species, add your voice calling for a stop to the destruction of scarce, remaining grasslands in the U.S.

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