Can Biofuels Be Made Sustainably?

biofuels.jpgThis crucial question is examined in a recent article by and a major study by the Dutch.

The article lays out the various problems. Corn ethanol has a much poorer energy balance than sugar cane ethanol, and it’s driving up the price of corn “thereby making it harder for poor families to put food on the table.” And “biodiesel plantations of soy and palm are already encroaching on major carbon sinks like the Amazon and tropical forests in Indonesia.” That trend, if unchecked, will only make global warming worse.

In addition, “if farmed unsustainably, monocrop plantations of biofuel crops could severely deplete soils, as well as contaminate water supplies and aquatic environments with toxic chemicals and synthetic fertilizers.”

Finally, there are security concerns: “Poor farmers have been massacred and driven off their land by paramilitary groups in Columbia who are betting on huge profits from cultivating palm oil for biodiesel.”

So how to ensure biofuels are sustainable? Establish rigorous criteria, as in a Dutch report, “Sustainability of Brazilian bio-ethanol,” by the Copernicus Institute. Here they are:

1. GHG balance: must have a net emission reduction by >=30% in 2007 and >= 50% in 2011. [This eliminates virtually all corn ethanol.]

2. Competition with food supply, local energy supply, medicines and building materials: Supply is not allowed to decrease.

3. Biodiversity: No decline of protected areas or valuable ecosystems in 2007, also active protection of local ecosystems in 2011.

4. Wealth: No negative effects on regional and national economy in 2007, and active contribution to increase of local wealth in 2011.

5. Welfare: Labor conditions, Human rights, Property and use rights, Social conditions of local population, and Integrity (i.e. no bribery)

6. Environment: Waste management, Use of agro-chemicals (incl. Fertilizers), Prevention of soil erosion and nutrient depletion, Preservation of surface & ground water, Airborne emissions, and Use of GMOs (this is Europe).

The study has two conclusions:

no prohibitive reasons were identified why ethanol from S£o Paulo principally could not meet the Dutch sustainability standards set for 2007.

For the future and the whole of Brazil, too many uncertainties remain to determine whether also additional criteria from 2011 onwards can be met.

The report itself details the criteria at greater length.

The study notes “sustainability criteria lead to higher production costs” from 24% to 56% higher. These criteria may prove overly tough in the long run, but at least they are a start on addressing this vexing issue.

5 Responses to Can Biofuels Be Made Sustainably?

  1. Jonas says:

    Well, sustainability criteria are fine as long as they are not another unfair barrier to trade, killing developing countries who could be biofuel exporters.

    Remember: everything that grows in the US and the EU used to be forest land. That was destroyed long ago and turned into agricultural land. 200 years later – after this destruction and massive use of fossil fuels allowed the West to become super-rich – we see this wealthy West imposing “sustainability criteria”.

    To be fair, we should import moderately sustainable biofuels from the developing world, and at least compensate developing countries for avoiding deforestation.

    If we don’t, we are hypocrits. We have built our wealth (which allows us to organise think tanks on “sustainability” and blogs about climate change) on the destruction of our own forests, and on that of others (when we were still ruling our colonies).

    We need a historic perspective on sustainability.

  2. Joe says:

    Fair enough, though it may just be an accident of history that what is threatened these da.ys is tropical forests — which are crucial carbon sinks far more important than forests in US and EU

  3. Earl Killian says:

    You should be careful about over generalization. What is suggested (without being explicitly stated) is flawed logic:
    * X is a biofuel
    * X cannot be made sustainably
    * Therefore biofuels cannot be made sustainably
    In particular, the title reads “Can Biofuels Be Made Sustainably?” but the text talks about corn ethanol and soy and palm biodiesel, as if those encompass all biofuels.

    There are real issues with most biofuels. That is true. But one should not generalize to all members of a class even if most members are bad. What about algae biodiesel, for example?

  4. Earl Killian says:

    In response to Jonas: I would say that the past damage of Europeans and North Americans is not justification for developing countries to commit future damage. Rather North America and Europe should take responsibility to undo the damage they have done, while others should avoid doing further damage. Thus NA and EU should eventually be called upon to have negative GJG emissions until such time that they have removed the GHG they put into the atmosphere. If developing countries use the NA/EU precedent to emit GHG, they are only making their lives even worse (e.g. China losing water, which is more important to its welfare than fossil fuels are).

    For example, the US was responsible for 29% of GHG emissions from 1750 to 2005. Once we get to zero emissions, we should go negative until we’ve removed all that carbon from the atmosphere. That might be a long way away of course. China is only 8% of 1750-2005 GHG emissions, and so they will have a lot less cleanup to do. See for other nations.

  5. tidal says:

    Regarding sustainability of biofuels… thought this new paper germane:

    “humans appropriated 24% of the Earth’s potential production” of primary biomass each year… “with such an already high human pressure on ecosystems, schemes to replace fossil fuels with biomass fuels should be approached cautiously”

    “Quantifying and mapping the human appropriation of net primary production in the Earth’s terrestrial ecosystems”, is about to be published by the National Academy of Sciences.
    The full paper is available online now here:

    From the lay synopsis:
    Measuring human appropriation of net primary production, the aggregate impact of land use on biomass available each year in ecosystems, is one way to quantify the effect that human dominance has on the biosphere. Human land use, such as planting crops, or harvesting, such as clearing forests, alters patterns and pathways of carbon captured by photosynthesis. A recent analysis by Helmut Haberl et al. shows that humans appropriate almost a quarter of the Earth’s photosynthetic production capacity in this way. Haberl et al. analyzed data on human land use and harvests from 161 countries, which represent 97% of the Earth’s landmass. The results showed that humans appropriated 24% of the Earth’s potential production. Over half of the impact is attributable to harvesting crops or other plants. According to the authors, no other single species has such a large impact on the Earth’s production. The authors caution that, with such an already high human pressure on ecosystems, schemes to replace fossil fuels with biomass fuels should be approached cautiously given their ability to impact the biosphere further.