Where are we going with biofuels?

The word ‘sustainable’ can ring hollow. Like ‘the environment’ and ‘the people’, ‘sustainable’ is an easy thing to say without meaning much. One of my most loyal blog followers, eqfe, has commented a few times about my ‘sustainable’ tag here. He has a point!

So I’m thinking about biofuels. These are fuels made from organisms, whether large or small. All organisms can breed, so in that sense, biofuels are renewable. But what harm do they do? Are any kinds of biofuel sustainable in a way that means anything? I’ve written before about sustainability for farming and food.

Today my fellow blogger narhvalur points out some biofuel news which sheds light (pun intentional.) Here it is. Barbara Lewis at PlanetArk reports that the European Parliament’s environment committee has voted to limit the use of crop-based biofuels. Ms Lewis explains why that kind of biofuels is ‘increasingly seen as doing the planet more harm than good.’

Here’s what goes wrong with crop-based biofuels. Land that could be used to grow or gather food for people gets used to grow food for cars. Maize (corn, Zea mays), oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), oilseed rape (rapeseed, canola, Brassica napus). The fancy name for that kind of going-wrong is ‘indirect land-use change’ (ILUC). Another blogger, Sara Fazal, summed it up starkly as ‘Starving Poor, Racing Cars’.

Because of these kinds of thinking, for several years there’s been concern about ILUC in Europe and on our trading partners’ land. But let’s not get carried away. For biofuels as for genetic modification and other kinds of biotech, this isn’t a simple good/bad argument.

Ms Lewis tells us that advanced or ‘second-generation’ biofuels may provide a better way forward. ‘Made from waste or agricultural residues rather than food crops, these are seen as the most sustainable type of biofuel, but are still at an early stage of commercialisation.’ This could mean little organisms or even littler ones. It could be farmed insects. Here’s some science about insects for biodiesel production. It could be farmed algae. I’ve told you before that I think algal biofuels are exciting.

Meanwhile we have crop-based biofuels. For those kinds of biofuel in Europe, the Fat Lady isn’t singing yet. Even the European Parliament’s environment committee vote hasn’t yet led to a change in the law. There’ll be another vote in September and then we can expect more wrangling between member states.

[Edit] A few days after I wrote this post, narhvalur alerted me to more biofuel news. In the States, the home of crop-based biofuels, people who make these fuels are now to obey the same rules on carbon emissions as everybody else.

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About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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4 Responses to Where are we going with biofuels?

  1. The subject of biofuels gets me a little hot headed. The simple reason is pretty much what you had the good sense to point out – the land used for biofuels could be used for food. Roughly two billion people are under-nourished, and the global population is still growing. To me it seems ludicrous to even consider using such a precious and shrinking resource as land to produce fuel from crops that could have eased a hungry child’s belly. But of course I’m really talking about crop-based biofuels here… I’m so glad to here there’s an EU-based move to limit their use, but I’m sceptical about the waste-based fuels… Yes, in the short-term while we have a huge amount of food waste, using it to make biofuel or methane gas is sustainable and a good use of resources. But what about when we become more efficient – or resources become too expensive – and we stop producing tonnes of waste? I don’t know, maybe it’s more that it wouldn’t be ‘waste’ anymore, it’d be ‘fuel’. I suppose the real gem in the crown of biofuel is that it’s a liquid fuel – much easier to store and use with existing infrastructure than electricity generated renewably.
    It’s a very interesting topic, so thanks for bringing it up!

    • argylesock says:

      You’re welcome. I agree that it wouldn’t be helpful or sustainable if leftover food or rejected food – misshapen vegetables and so on – that are fit for human consumption, gained value as a supply for biofuels.

      What I’d really like to see used commercially for waste-based biofuel. is sewage. Also animal faeces, whether from mammals, birds or fish. And, in due course, from farmed insects too. All of these ideas are really at the stage of ‘blue-sky’ thinking now. But that was true of most of the technologies we now take for granted, within the last few decades. Perhaps our children and grandchildren will laugh at the memory of people like you and me, doubting the poo-fuelled car.

  2. EqFe. says:

    In the US, we have this ridiculous 10 ethanol content law, as if the corn used to produce it was grown used by equipment powered by fossil fuel and the crop wasn’t fertilized by chemical fertilizer made from fossil fuel. Currently, the meat industry produces huge amounts of manure, which often fouls local drinking water. I’d love to see someone take a page out of “Beyond Thunderdome and use that manure to produce methane gas, and eventually use the dried manure for fertilizer.

    • argylesock says:

      Yes indeed. I’ve seen some great cartoon parodies of people filling their cars with crates of cow manure, and trying to burn the methane. But as I said upthread, our descendants might laugh at us for having such doubts.

      Anyway, thanks for prodding me to write this post 🙂

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