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Disadvantages of biofuels


Biofuels are heavily debated at the moment. At the gas station, the fuel looks nice and clean, but one has to consider the entire production chain to judge its environmental and economic soundness. We highlight the three main issues with current biofuel production: limited CO2 reductions, land and water use and destruction of wild habitats. 

Many people believe that the production of biofuels is a CO2-neutral process in which organic matter grows (absorbing CO2 from the atmosphere), is turned into a fuel, and combusted (releasing the same amount of CO2). This, however, completely ignores that growing the biomass is a very CO2 intensive process because of the use of machinery and fertilizer. Some estimate that for each tonne of CO2 released during combustion, about 0.75 tonnes of CO2 were used in the production process. This largely undermines the often-mentioned carbon advantages of biofuels. Some experts, such as chemist Richard Templer of the Imperial College London, even claim that the combustion of biofuels is as CO2 intensive as the combustion of diesel. The only remaining advantage is the reduced energy dependence on foreign oil imports.

Land and water use

The first generation biofuels, e.g. growing crops to turn into fuel or electricity, need a lot of land to produce a liter of fuel or a megawatt of electricity. In densely populated countries such as the Netherlands, there is by far not enough space to grow biofuels for the whole economy, even if the entire land surface would be used. This also means that biofuels have to compete with alternative land uses such as food production.

Currently, water constraints in agriculture are getting more and more severe. The introduction of large-scale biofuels would require an immense amount of water. Some experts say that water availability may severely limit further agricultural and economic activity in the future, including the use of biofuels.

Destruction of wild habitats

As explained above, growing biomass increases the demand for agricultural land. A very alarming phenomenon is that many tropical countries, such as Indonesia, have shown sharply increased deforestation rates as palm oil plantings are being created. This eliminates much of the CO2 advantages, because of the CO2 that is released when forested areas are burnt or cut down. Even worse, pristine rain forests and their ecological functions are being destroyed. Recently, this phenomenon has attracted more policy attention. This is important, because many uninformed consumers would probably not have the feel-good experience when purchasing biodiesel if they really knew the entire production chain...

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Views: 15800 Added: 14-01-2009

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Disadvantages of biofuels