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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 sa
me amount
of CO2). This, however, completely ignores that growing the biomass is a very CO
2 intensive
process because of the use of machinery and fertilizer. Some estimate that for e
ach tonne of
CO2 released during combustion, about 0.75 tonnes of CO2 were used in the produc
tion
process. This largely undermines the often-mentioned carbon advantages of biofue
ls. Some
experts, such as chemist Richard Templer of the Imperial College London, even cl
aim 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 electrici
ty, need a lot of
land to produce a liter of fuel or a megawatt of electricity. In densely populat
ed countries such
as the Netherlands, there is by far not enough space to grow biofuels for the wh
ole economy,
even if the entire land surface would be used. This also means that biofuels hav
e to compete
with alternative land uses such as food production.
Currently, water constraints in agriculture are getting more and more severe. Th
e introduction
of large-scale biofuels would require an immense amount of water. Some experts s
ay 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 sho
wn sharply
increased deforestation rates as palm oil plantings are being created. This elim
inates 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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