Can Biofuels Be Made Sustainably?

This 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.