Do biofuels have a sustainable future?

By John Parnell

Sugar cane in Brazil, where ethanol sales exceeded those of gasoline in 2008. (Source: Flickr/Shell)

On paper it seems like an ideal solution. Plant crops, turn them into energy and displace some fossil fuels in the process. The reality is not nearly as straightforward.

Energy crops, as they are broadly termed, are used for two main purposes. Biomass is burned in power stations or it is distilled into transport biofuels for vehicles.

The problem is that a growing population means the planet needs to grow more food than ever before. Replacing food with energy crops, is a luxury some say we cannot afford.

The EU has a target to source 10% of its transport fuels from renewable sources by 2020. However, a leading NGO has launched a campaign this week calling for the target to be dropped.

“If it continues to ignore the impacts of its biofuels policy on people living in some of the poorest parts of the planet, the EU will effectively be sponsoring hunger and human rights abuses on a massive scale,” says Laura Sullivan, ActionAid’s Head of European Advocacy.

ActionAid claims that meeting this target will need 13-19 million hectares of land overseas. The group’s Fuel for Thought study, claims that much of this land is also being seized, leading to clashes with locals. One such incident left three people in Guatemala dead.

Read the EU’s response to the report here.

Food or fuel or both?

So can the world feed itself and use agriculture to cut carbon too?

“It is clear that the world is heading towards a crisis,” says Dr Angela Karp, leader of the Plant and Invertebrate Ecology at the Rothamsted research institute in the UK.

“Food security, energy security and climate change are all linked. How do you feed the rising population with dwindling energy supplies, whilst also dealing with rising CO2 emissions?”

One solution Karp’s group is investigating is technology to separate the inedible part of crops from the high-energy food.

Willow can be grown for biomass on marginal land and harvested every two years. (Source: Flickr/vilseskogen)

“With improved processing technology we can get the sugars out of the non-food parts of the plant, from stems, dry grasses and wood. The food part can be retained,” says Karp.

Rothamsted is also looking into growing bioenergy crops for power stations in areas where food cannot be grown.

“Bioenergy uses largely non-food sources from forestry, forest by-products and increasingly from perennial crops like willow. These can be grown in sub-prime conditions and therefore do not displace any land that could have been used to grow food,” she says.

Trials are ongoing of interbred willows to find a combination best-fit for the purpose.

As well as providing an energy source to displace fossil fuels, it would also improve soil quality and store additional carbon.

“If the UK put bioenergy crops like willow on its marginal land, we have calculated that it would save 6-10 million tons of carbon by 2050,” says Karp.

Learning from the past

While all this provides good news for the industry, Karp acknowledges that pressures to protect food security are key and that mistakes have been made in the past.

“There are some biofuels that are not to be encouraged. We probably had to pass through that learning curve. It was a knee-jerk reaction to try and meet our own targets, now people have learnt that there are some biofuel sources that we probably shouldn’t be pursuing.”

Regardless of the EU decision, the UK has today issued a statement that it will look to obtain 11% of its energy demand from bioenergy sources at home and abroad. Written firmly into this commitment is the need for proven carbon saving and sustainable sources for the cultivation of the crops.

Perhaps the bioenergy industry is growing up.

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