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Taken at face-value, biofuels present a renewable alternative to fossil fuels. However, we scratch the surface to find a complex debate is revealed. On one side we are confronted by the benefits of switching to “renewable” biofuels, those that are manufactured from biomass and are biodegradable and nontoxic, and on the other side, we are faced with the multiple indirect environmental issues that the use of these fuels sustain, which potentially outweigh the benefits.
Alternative “Renewable” Source
Biofuels have been targeted by many governments as an alternative “renewable” source of transport fuel. Under pressure to reduce emissions and to increase sustainability, many governments have implemented targets to increase their use of biofuels. However, there are a number of issues raised by the production and use of biofuels that directly contradict their status as a renewable energy source.
When burned, biofuels produce fewer emissions, a reason why they are seen as a preferable alternative to traditional fuels. However, the production of biofuels often involves using land already being utilized as farmland. This leads to deforestation, as more land is sought in order to keep up with the increasing demand for food worldwide. Indirectly, the production of biofuels actually increases CO2 levels because it reduces the number of trees transforming the toxic gas into oxygen. This is the first point which reveals biofuels to be a non-renewable source of energy.
Impact of Greenhouse Gases
Greenhouse gases are also augmented through the reliance on fossil fuels across the entire biofuel supply chain. From growth of ingredients through to transportation, non-renewable energy sources are key to biofuel manufacture. Further to this, greenhouse gases are emitted at different stages of production, due to the burning of fuel used in farming, the production of fertilizers used on the crops, burning fuel during transport, and more. Meaning that while biofuels may emit fewer greenhouse gases when burned and are that they are produced from renewable products (such as corn and soybeans), these positives are dramatically outweighed by the negative impact of greenhouses gases being produced as an indirect effect of biofuel production, as well as the dependence on fossil fuels along the supply chain.
Loss of Biodiversity and Increased Food Prices
Loss of biodiversity is another indirect impact of biofuel production. Land that supports diverse ecosystems that reduce atmospheric levels of carbon is being utilized for biofuel manufacture, or for farming, because biofuel production has occupied farming space. Due to this, biofuels indirectly reduce biodiversity.
Another impact related to land usage is the increase in food prices that has resulted from the competition between food and fuel for land space. Not only is biofuel taking up farming space, but it is also reducing the availability of certain food types. Just under half of the corn produced in the US is used in biofuel production, and the scarcity of the ingredient has resulted in increased food prices which even led to a riot in Mexico City recently in response to increased tortilla costs. There are similar implications for soybean products.
Biofuel Production is Not Sustainable
The UN has recognized that biofuel production is aggravating the global food crisis, and with food demand increasing year-on-year as exponential population growth continues, the UN has sought to reduce biofuel production in the US in order to take steps to defuse the situation. Biofuel’s implications on food security further support that it is in fact a non-renewable energy source given that its production methods are not sustainable. The competition between fuel or food cannot endure in a functional society, nor is it morally right to exacerbate the food crisis when even in developed nations like the US a significant portion of the population is living in poverty.
In reviewing the facts it is clear that on the surface biofuels are made from renewable sources, and emit fewer greenhouse gases than conventional fuels. However, their production increases deforestation which raises greenhouse gases further than the reduction in greenhouse gases that their use as a replacement of conventional transportation fuels would foster. In addition, non-renewable energy sources are heavily relied on in various stages of their production. Finally, they are linked with rising food costs and food insecurity, meaning that they support a status quo which is not sustainable. Biofuel’s status as a renewable energy source is undoubtedly fragile.
Sources and Further Reading