Recent developments in the world of biofuels

Water hyacinth mat on river Opinions on the use of crops for biofuel and bioenergy continue to be polarized – are they a ‘good thing’ or not? When are they a ‘good thing’? Who benefits?

How do you measure the impacts and their interactions at a local, national and international level on food security, land resources, water, greenhouse gas emissions, energy security, poverty, social development, sustainability…and try to remain impartial and objective?

The Bioenergy and Food Security (BEFS) Analytical Framework developed by FAO aims to address these issues by providing an analytical framework and set of tools which can be used to measure these impacts. Using a step-by-step methodology, the goal is to help policymakers make informed decisions on whether development of bioenergy is a viable option for their country and identify suitable policies that will maximize benefits and minimize risks.

Three separate reports describe the implementation of the framework in Peru, Tanzania and Thailand, with suggestions for suitable options for each country.

Another source of information is Recent developments in the world of biofuels, a critical analysis by CABI scientists of the latest research on the potential and realities of growing and processing jatropha, algae and biomass for biofuels or bioenergy – see Biofuels Information Exchange.

Land use and poverty alleviation issues in Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, India, China and Brazil are discussed as well as research into using problematic invasive aquatic weeds (water hyacinth – pictured above – is a favourite) for bioenergy. The pros and cons of algal biofuels, and the latest technology for concentrating biomass energy into a more energy-dense form which makes transport to a processing plant more feasible are discussed, and more…

BIE is an impartial site for exchanging information on biofuels research – the exchange on pests of jatropha has generated the longest running discussion over the last 2 years – and the site provides open access to documents on biofuels, including the peer-reviewed Land Use Change: Science and Policy Review (copublished with Hart Energy Consulting) and abstracts of the latest research on biofuels from the CAB Abstracts database.

For a comprehensive resource of published information on research into man’s impact on the environment see CABI’s Environmental Impact which has a special section on biofuels research information – abstracts, books, book chapters, reports, reviews.

How Green are Biofuels?

Biofuels are often touted as a way of efficiently generating power with lower effects on the environment than existing fuel production methods. But how effective are they if you weigh everything up? A paper by Lucas Reijnders in CAB Reviews looks at life-cycle assessments of biofuels and finds that they are much less efficient than solar cells in energy conversion, and some perform worse that conventional fossil fuels in emission of chemicals contributing to acidification and eutrophication. Some even appear set to worsen climate change.

Life-cycle assessments are very complex to do, because it is hard to work out what effects to rule in or out and on what basis to make comparisons. Factors such as what the land was previously used for need to be taken into account. Thus fuel from sugarcane grown on cleared Cerrado savannah has a lower net effect on greenhouse gas emissions than conventional diesel, but if a rainforest is being cleared, the biofuel does worse than diesel. Biofuels look much better if grown on land that isn’t currently absorbing much CO2. Reijnders, from the Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics at the University of Amsterdam, points out that incentives may be needed to encourage the use of abandoned soils rather than clearing rainforest, as the rainforest clearance gives producers income from the sale of timber.

The input of fuel into producing biofuel needs to be estimated. Reijnders concludes that total fossil-fuel demand is relatively high for ethanol produced from European grain or US maize, and relatively low for palm oil or ethanol from sugarcane. However, palm oil tends to do worse than fossil fuel in greenhouse gas emissions.

“The ‘seed-to-wheel’ emissions of greenhouse gases associated with current transport biofuels are often higher than the corresponding life-cycle emissions of conventional fossil fuels”, says Reijnders. “Palm oil and ethanol from maize and wheat may contribute to energy security, but are counterproductive in limiting climate change,” he writes.

‘Transport biofuels – a life-cycle assessment approach’ by Lucas Reijnders, CAB Reviews: Perspectives in Agriculture, Veterinary Science, Nutrition and Natural Resources, 2008, 3, No. 071