All Bio-fuels are not equal; some are worse than crude oil

Here are two brief articles from the Guardian Weekly, 10 Feb 2012, that put a perspective on the various fuels. The second indicates that there are lots of grades of “crude” oil, but points at a hopeful way to encourage use of the less damaging fuels.


Palm oil biodiesel 'worse than crude oil'

Damian Carrington

There are good biofuels and bad biofuels: the trick is telling one from the other. That's particularly difficult when trying to take account of the natural forests and wetlands that can be destroyed in the drive to grow some biofuel crops. But we're getting closer to, it seems, and palm oil and soya beans now appear utterly unsupportable as a source of biodiesel.

The new data comes from a leak obtained by Eur-Active from the European commission. The commission is considering what level of carbon emissions each type of biofuel causes once burned, after everything – including “indirect land-use change” - is taken into account.

It is obvious that for a biofuel to be useful in cutting emissions driving global warming it needs to have a smaller carbon footprint than regular fuel from crude oil.

It turns out that palm oil and soua bena biodiesel is just a touch less polluting than fuel from tar sands. Maize and sugar do better than crude oil but still cause significant carbon emissions.

The better news comes from the second generation fuels (2G), particularly when they are “non-land using”, that is when they use only waste such as straw. Facories doing this are setting up now in, for example, Italy. The “land-using” fuels are made from non-food crops, such as jatropha, but that can bring its own problems.

The EU's scheme for certifying biofuels as sustainable requires them to emit 35% less CO2 than regular fuel, increasing to 60% by 2018, leaving palm oil, soya bean, rapeseed and sunflower looking all but dead.

Palm oil biodiesel also received another blow last month, with the US Environmental Protection Agency suggesting it fails to meet the US requirement of emitting at least 20% less carbon than diesel from crude oil.

Robbie Blake, biofuels campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe, said: “It's getting quite indisputable that the use of soya or palm oil to fuel our cars is even dirtier than conventional fossil fuels. Forests in Asia and South America are being destroyed by the expamsion of plantations to meet the European market. It's a delusion for politicians to think that biodiesel will solve climate change.”

The European Union's target for 10% of all transport fuels to be giofuels by 2020 has been described as “unethical” because the production of some types violates human rights and damages the environment.

The same reasearchers described doing nothing to find alternatives to the fossil fuels that currently power transport as “immoral”.

So the difficult task of distinguishing good and bad biofuels remains essential, as does the research of even more promising technologies, which use sources such as algae and seaweed.

Real costs (in grammes of CO2 per megajoule of energy)

Oil from tar sands 107

Palm oil 105

Soya bean 103

Rapeseed 95

Crude oil 87.5

Sunflower 86

Palm oil (with methane capture) 83

Corn maize 43

Sugar cane 36

Sugar beet 34

2G Ethanol (land-using) 32

2G Biodiesel (land-using) 21

2G Ethanol (non-land-using) 9

2G Biodiesel (non-land-using) 9


Fuel action blocked

California is championing standards that could transform the fuel in cars and light lorries. But the rule has become embroiled in a fierce battle and has been barred by a federal judge from being enforced, although the state is appealing.

The premise of California's plan – as well as its European counterpart, the EU fuel quality directive – is that the transport sector must begin to move away from fossil fuels. The standards assign carbon intensity values to 250 types of crude along with other fuels – including ethanol, electricity and hydrogen – that power cars and trucks. They call for reducing the overall carbon content of fuel sold in the state by 10% by 2020. Refiners will either have to mix low-carbon fuels into what they sell or buy credits to offset the amount by which the fuel they sell exceeds the standards. The state projects that the standard would cut greenhouse gas emissions by 23 tonnes in 2020.

Lawmakers in at least 18 other states, as well as in Washington, started looking at similar standards but now several have dropped or suspended their plans. Juliet Eilperin (Washington Post)




bike's picture

"So the difficult task of

"So the difficult task of distinguishing good and bad biofuels remains essential, as does the research of even more promising technologies, which use sources such as algae and seaweed."

Hmm, anyone heard of people power or human powered bicycles/tricycles? I wouldn't call that difficult.

And gee, do you think the industrial world's exploitation of algae and seaweed will create any new problems? Not for civilized folks, of course, since the earth is ours to use as we please. Just don't let anyone lift up the blinders enough to see that other life (currently) exists on the planet, too...

joseph's picture

good point Dave

the simple imperative to just use less is so often left out of the debate about how to best reduce CO2. Improving efficiency gets some play, but "alternate" energy sources dominate the debate -- the underlying assumption all too often is that we have every right to keep using as much energy as we can "produce".

That said, portable, high-density energy sources are incredibly useful (try running your chainsaw on pedal-power) -- so, given the prevailing attitudes about energy use, the article does provide some pivotal insights.
I am often dismayed to see blanket statements condemning bio-fuels for this or that reason - it is all too common for media to over-generalize about topics that are nuanced and multifaceted. This article, at least, shows there are significant differences between bio-fuels, and that just because palm-based fuels are a really bad idea, doesn't therefore mean all bio-fuels are a bad idea - a conclusion I've heard and read too many times.

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