On the surface, biofuels sound like a great idea. Using waste biomass to generate power sounds like a win-win-win proposition: you generate power without incurring an environmental cost, and as a bonus the power is expected to be carbon neutral.
In British Columbia 20 per cent of our total energy use is derived from waste biomass, but the province has a huge forest industry that generates a tremendous amount of waste material to burn. Worldwide, there is not enough waste biomass to supply power plants with a steady source of fuel.
In the rest of the world this has led power producers to rely not only on waste biomass but on virgin materials. In Germany, wood makes up 38 per cent of non-fossil fuel power consumption. Unfortunately, a high proportion of the wood used in Germany is from the clear cutting of some of the most biodiverse temperate forests and freshwater ecosystems.
Canada exports about 1.3 million tons of wood pellets a year to Europe — most of it from boreal forests. Since boreal forests grow slowly, its harvest to generate wood pellets will create a “biofuel carbon debt” that can take 190 to 340 years to repay. That means that boreal forest wood is carbon neutral only in a multi-century time frame.
In a twist of irony, this means that the power used by Greenpeace in Europe to fight the “Athabasca tar sands'” theoretical destruction of boreal forests is being provided by the cutting down of actual Canadian boreal forests.
As for biofuels, in the U.S. the Renewable Fuel Standard has resulted in a lot of corn (the biggest source of U.S. ethanol) being pulled out of the food chain. As recounted in Forbes, in 2000, over 90 per cent of the U.S. corn crop went to feed people and livestock — many in undeveloped countries — with less than five per cent used to produce ethanol.
In 2013, 40 per cent went to produce ethanol, 45 per cent was used to feed livestock, and only 15 per cent was used for foodstuffs.
That meant that biofuels pulled enough calories to feed 500 million people out of the human food chain.
Brazil, meanwhile, is clear-cutting almost a million acres of tropical forest per year to produce biofuel for European markets. The net effect is about 50 per cent more carbon emitted by using these biofuels than would be generated by using petroleum fuels.
A recent article in Science points out that corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20 per cent savings in greenhouse gases, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years. That means it will not be carbon neutral for 167 years.
Another article in Science indicates that converting rainforests, peatlands, savannahs, or grasslands to produce food crop-based biofuels in Brazil, Southeast Asia, and the United States releases 17 to 420 times more CO2 than the annual greenhouse gas reductions that these biofuels would provide by displacing fossil fuels.
As for palm oil, Ensia reports that in 1985, Indonesia had less than 2,500 square miles of palm oil plantation; 20 years later, they covered 21,621 square miles, and by 2025 the Indonesian government projects plantations will cover at least 100,000 square miles.
A typical palm oil lagoon (a necessary component of the oil palm extraction process) has the same annual climate impact as driving 22,000 passenger cars.
The upwards of 1,000 palm oil plantations in Indonesia produce CO2 equivalent to220,000 passenger cars a year; this is in addition to the palm oil plantation’s biofuel carbon debt of almost a century.
As a student in ecology, I was taught that the preservation of habitat is one of the most important ways to protect ecosystems and maintain the integrity of our shared ecological inheritance. Biofuels are helping destroy that inheritance by reducing ecological resiliency and increasing the likelihood of collapse in degraded ecosystems.
What is worse is that from a climate perspective these supposedly “carbon neutral” fuels can only be considered carbon neutral in century timescales. Unfortunately, very few organisms live lives marked by century timescales.
From a human perspective, moving the calories used in biofuels out of the human food chain has resulted in food scarcity, increased costs for food, and a reduction in the availability of inexpensive food available for aid.
The international drive towards reliance on biofuels is neither ecologically sustainable nor does it help to slow down climate change. Instead it is another case of bad policy based on a poor understanding of environmental science.