Questions and answers about biofuels

Biofuel photomontage © Rettet den Regenwald

Biofuels have been a hot topic for some time now. They have been heralded as the solution to humanity’s energy problem and savior of the world’s climate. The business world is drawn by the promise of huge profits and developing countries see them as a springboard to prosperity.

Is this the dawn of a golden age? Can we now get in our cars and put the pedal to the metal with a good conscience?

The answer is a clear NO.

Using palm oil for power generation or bioethanol and biodiesel as vehicle fuels is fundamentally unsustainable and contributes to climate change and world hunger. Read on for answers to some burning questions about biofuels.


What are biofuels?

“Biofuel” is a term for fuels derived from renewable plant and animal biomass. They can be divided into four groups:

  • alcohols such as ethanol, which are produced from sugar cane, corn and grain
  • biodiesel made of rapeseed, palm, soybean, sunflower, and other vegetable oils
  • biogas obtained from organic matter such as crop residues and dung.
  • solid and liquid biomass such as vegetable oils, plant fibers, solid waste and wood pellets used in combined heating and power plants, either exclusively or in combination with fossil fuels

How are biofuels a part of my life?

Biofuels have come into wide use in recent years in motor vehicles, power generation and heating. European Union (EU) directives require the addition of an increasing share of biofuels to fossil fuels for motor vehicles. Commercially available fuels in the EU always contain biofuels. Germany, for example, mandated a share of 6.25% in 2012, and it is set to go up to 10% by 2020. Super E10 currently contains 10% ethanol from wheat and sugar beets. 3.8 million tons of biofuels were consumed in Germany alone in 2010. The EU and governments of the Member States are promoting the production and use of biofuels with subsidies and blending mandates.

Are biofuels environmentally friendly?

No. Industrial monocultures used to grow biofuels are heavily treated with synthetic fertilizers and pesticides that are hazardous to the environment and human health. Increasingly, genetically modified crops are being used that entail incalculable dangers.  Furthermore, growing fuel crops in relatively arid regions requires considerable amounts of groundwater for irrigation, posing a threat to the drinking water supplies of local communities.

Are biofuels CO2 neutral?

No, far from it. The industry and policymakers resort to tricks and misleading calculations to make biofuels appear environmentally friendly. In reality, biofuels accelerate global warming in several ways: 
Fuel crops absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and release it again completely when the fuels are burned. This does not, however, take into account the carbon released by the plants that covered the land before the fuel crop was planted. For example, rainforests and peat forests are burned in Southeast Asia to make room for palm oil plantations.

Deforestation is responsible for about 18 percent of global carbon emissions, and agriculture for a further 14 percent. Producing one ton of palm oil on former peat forest land entails the release of ten to thirty tons of CO2. Rainforests are also a vital regulator of the global climate and their destruction leads to further warming and drying. Clearing too much rainforest land can lead to an abrupt tipping point for the ecosystem and attendant effects on the climate.

A further problem: the farming and production of biofuels requires large quantities of fossil fuels to operate machines and vehicles, to plow and sow the fields, to manufacture and apply fertilizers and pesticides, and to harvest, transport, store and process the crops. Fertilizers also release considerable amounts of nitrous oxide (N2O), a greenhouse gas nearly 300 times more potent than CO2.

Are biofuels the solution to the impending energy crisis?

No, absolutely not. According to Hartmut Michel, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1988 for his work on photosynthesis, the biofuel that can be produced on a given land area contains less than 0.4 percent of the solar energy received by that area over the same period. Fuel crops are thus extremely inefficient in comparison to modern solar panels, which convert 15-20 percent of incident solar energy into electricity. Plant biomass contains a maximum of two percent of the incident solar energy (or considerably less in the case of sugar cane, rapeseed, soybean, corn and grain), and the efficiency of conversion of biomass into biofuel is about 0.15 percent to 0.3 percent. 
This also explains the enormous space requirements for biofuels. Meeting humanity’s current energy needs using only biofuels would mean covering the entire surface of the Earth with fuel crops. 
Oil, gas and coal are fossil biomass of dead plants and animals. In the course of only one century, we burned a significant share of the planet’s fossil energy – a resource that took 700 million years to form. The biologist Jeffrey Dukes has calculated that the fossil fuel we burn every year is equivalent to the entire biomass that grows on the planet – on land and in the oceans – in 400 years.

If we use biofuels, is it still necessary to conserve energy?

Yes – even with biofuels, we will remain dependent on other sources of energy. Vast swathes of farmland have already been dedicated to biofuels, yet their share of global transportation energy consumption is barely one percent. Even a considerable production increase would only replace a small share of our fossil fuel consumption, and getting to that point will still require years of research. Using energy efficiently is thus more important than ever. The oil industry, however, has an interest in keeping our energy consumption high, as it profits from both fossil and “green” fuels.

Do biofuels help alleviate poverty in developing countries?

No, most farmers in developing countries only have small plots. The economies of scale needed to serve the biofuel requirements of the world market profitably means converting vast tracts of land into industrial monocultures – thus limiting the biofuels business to corporations and large landowners. 
It is not uncommon for local communities to be evicted and deprived of their ancestral land by the expansion of plantations. Biofuels thus go hand in hand with violence, human rights violations and poverty. Oil palm plantations in Indonesia, Malaysia, Colombia and Ecuador, or soybean cultivation in Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay provide numerous examples in which indigenous communities have been driven to the brink of extinction. 
Furthermore, plantations offer very low wages, tough working conditions and poor job security. In Brazil, 200,000 people work in the cane fields in conditions of virtual slavery.

Will biofuels break the power of the oil companies, utilities and automotive industry?

No, these industries have been on the bandwagon for quite some time. With their backing, biofuels are experiencing a boom of a magnitude last seen in Rockefeller’s day. Policymakers, international organizations and corporations in the oil, chemical, agricultural, genetic engineering and automotive industry have formed a new unholy alliance: Shell, BP, Chevron, ExxonMobil, Repsol YPF, Petrobras, ADM, Cargill, Bunge, Bayer, DuPont, BASF, Monsanto, Volkswagen, General Motors and Ford are among the key players.

Do biofuels affect the production of food?

The biofuel boom has already led to shorter supplies and price increases for major staple foods. Poor people simply cannot compete with car owners in terms of purchasing power. Worldwide, 800 million people go hungry and 3.6 billion live below the poverty line. Many of them have to make do with the equivalent of one euro a day. Poor people in developing countries are being hit much harder than the residents of industrialized countries. By filling our tanks with biofuel, we are contributing to widespread hunger and famines elsewhere. The United Nations World Food Program has already had to reduce food deliveries to famine areas. The grain needed to fill the tank of a luxury car with ethanol would feed one adult for a whole year. If the car were to be refueled every 2 weeks, the amount of grain required could feed 26 people for one year. The impact can be seen in the prices for corn tortillas – the staple food for poor people in Mexico – which more than doubled within months. Food riots ensued. Even in the EU, prices for edible vegetable fats have increased significantly.

But oil palm plantations are a kind of forest, aren’t they?

Trees alone don’t make a forest. An oil palm plantation is an industrial monoculture – a biological desert that is unsuitable as a habitat for animals and other plants. Establishing an oil palm plantation involves clearing ancient rainforests and other vital ecosystems. Calling the planting of oil palms “reforestation” is a cheap trick that policymakers and the industry use to mislead uninformed consumers.

What are “second-generation” biofuels?

Renowned research institutions have shown that the energy balance of current biofuels is very poor. In some cases, its production consumes more energy than the fuel ultimately provides. As a result, biofuels are not economically viable without government subsidies. 
Corporations are now trying to optimize the yield and energy efficiency of plants and processes for biofuels production and patent their work. Their objective is to produce more biofuel from the same land area and same volume of biomass. 
Biofuels are currently produced from plant sugars and oils. These substances make up only a small part of the plant biomass, however – the bulk consists of cellulose and lignin. Researchers are currently working on producing ethanol from cellulosic plant stems and wood. This will involve risky experimentation with genetically modified microbes, plants and trees. 
The outcome of their research is completely uncertain, and most certainly a long way off. Energy efficiency can only be increased within technical, physical and biological limits. Covering our energy needs with biomass for biofuels would entail expanding its production into the last intact ecosystems and remaining arable soils.

Are independently certified biofuels available?

No. While roundtables have been held to establish agreements between plantation owners and the biofuels industry, they have resulted in nothing more than declarations of intent. 
In practice, certification would only serve to dupe consumers, since biofuel production requires intensive industrial agriculture and all of the social and ecological problems that come with it. These include the eviction of smallholders, heavy fertilizer and pesticide use, and the expansion of biofuel farming at the expense of food production and intact rainforests. 
The amount of energy that can be obtained from the biosphere without serious environmental damage is subject to natural limits. Certification cannot overcome those limits or prevent the further expansion of farmland dedicated to biofuel production.

Why are biofuels such a hot topic?

Energy is a topic of strategic importance. In the past, we relied almost entirely on oil, gas and coal, but fossil fuels will not last forever, and extraction costs are rising as supplies dwindle. Biofuels are expected to make up possible shortfalls, and they are big business. 
Production is focusing on tropical and subtropical developing countries – their warm temperatures and year-round sun are a key to high yields. Patented, genetically modified plants ensure that the industry will maintain its monopolies. Cheap land, low wages and a lack of relevant laws to protect local communities and the environment – or their lax enforcement – all contribute to handsome profits.

Policymakers, international organizations and corporations are already building worldwide strategic biofuel alliances to ensure that established business and power structures remain in place. Biofuels are intended as a replacement for fossil fuels, allowing us to carry on with our ruthless exploitation of nature and unbridled energy consumption.

The only sound solution to these problems is to call for a moratorium on biofuels and the scrapping of policies promoting them.

What can I personally do about the biofuel problem?

There are many ways to get involved: 

Sensitize people for the issue and speak out: Pass this information on to your friends. Encourage or organize discussions about biofuels and inform the public about the issue. Write to policymakers and call on them to scrap legislation subsidizing biofuels or mandating its blending in motor vehicle fuels or use in heating and power generation. Help support affected communities in developing countries and speak out by signing Rainforest Rescue petitions.

Adopt an energy-conscious lifestyle: Use a bicycle or public transportation. If you absolutely need a car, choose a compact over a gas-guzzling SUV or sports car and avoid unnecessary trips. Ensure that your home is properly insulated and minimize your heating and A/C use. When buying new appliances, shop around for products with the lowest possible power consumption. Replace incandescent light bulbs with energy-efficient LED bulbs. Don’t leave electronic devices running in standby mode. Recycle as much of your waste as possible.

Switch to environmentally friendly sources of energy such as wind and solar: If you have the option, choose a utility company that offers green electricity generated using wind or solar power.

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