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More bad news for biofuels… February 8, 2008

Posted by Andreas in Climate change, Environment, Global warming, renewable energy.

Two recent studies show that growing crops for biofuel production could actually lead to increased greenhouse gas emissions.

It’s obvious that producing biodiesel and ethanol by conventional energy- and carbon-intensive agricultural methods, as opposed to sustainable organic ones, greatly reduces their mitigating effects:

Extra emissions are created from the production of fertiliser needed to grow corn, for example, leading some researchers to predict that the energy released by burning ethanol is only 25% greater than that used to grow and process the fuel.

The new studies, however, highlight a more fundamental problem:

Analyzing the lifecycle emissions from biofuels, the first study found that carbon released by converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands often far outweighs the carbon savings from biofuels. Conversion of peatland rainforests for oil palm plantations for example, incurs a “carbon debt” of 423 years in Indonesia and Malaysia, while the carbon emission from clearing Amazon rainforest for soybeans takes 319 years of renewable soy biodiesel before the land can begin to lower greenhouse gas levels and mitigate global warming.

According to Joe Fargione, one of the scientists participating in the studies, “These natural areas store a lot of carbon, so converting them to croplands results in tons of carbon emitted into the atmosphere.”

[T]he second study suggests that producing corn for fuel rather than food could have dramatic knock-on effects elsewhere. Corn is used to feed cattle and demand for meat is high, so switching land to biofuel production is likely to prompt farmers in Brazil and elsewhere to clear forests and other lands to create new cropland to grow the missing corn. When the carbon released by those clearances is taken into account, corn ethanol produces nearly twice as much carbon as petrol.

A sobering thought, considering the SA government’s plans for large-scale ethanol production from corn (maize).

According to Alex Farrell, another scientist involved in the studies,

biofuels could still prove useful in the fight against climate change, but using different approaches – such as focusing on crops for both food and fuel, or new technology for generating biofuels from food waste.

Algae anyone?!

Find out more here, here and here.



1. Jon Bloom - February 8, 2008

I’m a big believer in creating energy from food waste, like Alex Farrell mentions. Anaerobic digestion could be the answer to the net harmful impact of ethanol. I work for Orbit Energy, an US-based company that converts food waste to renewable energy.

What worries me is that with so much invested in ethanol, many nations (like the US) will stubbornly plow ahead with turning corn into fuel.

2. Audrey - February 9, 2008

Been waiting for the other biofuels shoe to drop for ages. It’s dropping in slow motion though. Monsanto’s subsaharan MD Kobus Lindeque recently told us that “(The SA govts) decision to exclude maize from the country’s biofuel production plans will harm (SA’s) maize industry” and went on about all sorts of negative consequences. He would, wouldn’t he? Wonder if these guys will ever be brought to book? Nice dream.

Ja ok I’ll have the algae with chips and salad 🙂

3. Jenna Fox - February 11, 2008

So maybe we should explore other sources of energy?

4. Andreas - February 11, 2008


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