Biofuels have long been part of official plans for the energy transition, as a replacement for petrol or gas. The IPCC said in 2018:
Bioenergy has a significant greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation potential, provided that the resources are developed sustainably and that efficient bioenergy systems are used. Certain current systems and key future options including perennial cropping systems, use of biomass residues and wastes and advanced conversion systems are able to deliver 80 to 90% emission reductions compared to the fossil energy baseline….
From the expert review of available scientific literature, potential deployment levels of biomass for energy by 2050 could be in the range of 100 to 300 EJ…. The upper bound of the technical potential of biomass for energy may be as large as 500 EJ/yr by 2050….
Biomass provided about 10.2% (50.3 EJ/yr) of the annual global primary energy supply in 2008,IPCC Chapter 2: Biofuels 215-16
Not enough biofuels
In 2011, the International Energy Agency forecast that biofuels could make up 27 percent of global transportation fuels by 2050. In 2021 the same organisation called for greater production of biofuels, but feared that (even i biofuels were less polluting and were low emissions) the necessary increase was not happening:
Transport biofuel production expanded 6% year-on-year in 2019, and 3% annual production growth is expected over the next five years. This falls short of the sustained 10% output growth per year needed until 2030 to align with the SDS.IEA Transport Biofuels tracking report 1921 [Note IEA website addresses are often used more than once for the current report]
While biofuel demand grew 5% per year on average between 2010 and 2019, the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario requires much higher average growth of 14% per year to 2030.
Despite a boost in biofuel production in Asia, Wood Mackenzie state
Our forecast shows that no Asian market can meet its biodiesel and ethanol blending targets this year. Indonesia for example, l requires 15 million hectares more palm oil plantations to reach its mandate target, and in China ethanol for biofuels started noticeably competing with food production (Wood Mackenzie (2021).
The IEA calls for more production incentive policies to make up this shortfall, but remarks:
These policies must ensure that biofuels are produced sustainably and avoid negative impacts on biodiversity, freshwater systems, food prices and food availability. Policies must also incentivise greenhouse gas reductions, not just biofuel demandop cit.
Removal of emissions
To be useful, biofuels must replace other worse sources of emissions and pollution, rather than being used in addition to those sources of pollution. This is another case in which emissions density, the ratio of energy to emissions is an irrelevant measure, as biofuels could reduce emissions intensity, while still allowing emissions increase.
It is perhaps questionable whether sustainable production of biofuels is compatible with both reduction of fuel costs (ie they compete with fossil fuels as replacements), rapid growth of production and lowering of pollution, as pollution is often associated with making things cheap and plentiful.
Biofuel, as an addition to petrol, may require us to keep petrol going for longer than is necessary, preserving fossil fuel company profits with only marginally lower emissions. Biofuels may also not be as efficient as fossil fuels and therefore increase overall consumption, and a Jevons effect might eventuate if the mixed fuel becomes cheaper to use, and more is consumed.
The Time Issue
It is generally much quicker to burn a plant or the fuel derived from a plant than it is to grow the volume of plants being burnt and turned into fuel. The more biofuel being burnt in a time period, the more biomass is needed to be being produced at the same time.
If it takes three days to regrow and process the amount of matter burnt in 1 day (which is excessively and unlikely quick replacement), then we need to grow and store enough biomass for days two and three and then grow it again. The greater the demand for biofuel the greater the demand for excess production. This will generally denature the soil, and make a problem for food production as it takes large quantities of land. Currently the world is expected to suffer food shortages because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is probably not sensible to bet so much on crops for biomass given the instability of the current world through politics and through climate which may affect growth and fertility.
a) Biofuels may take a lot of energy, land and manufactured fertiliser to produce, refine and transport to places of consumption, so their Energy Return on Energy Input (EREI) could be extremely low while the pollution through their production could be high.
b) Using organic waste, usually for the production of biogas, may remove natural fertilisers from the soil so that the ecological cycle of recovery is broken, and has to be repaired artificially. This may increase the energy ‘consumed or ‘wasted’ in making replacement chemical fertilisers. Again the IEA states:
biofuels are increasingly produced from feedstocks such as wastes and residues, which do not compete with food crops…. [while currently] only an estimated 7% of biofuels came from wastes and residues… Accounting for just 3% of transport fuel demand – biofuels are not on track to attain the Net Zero trajectory###
Given that used cooking oil and waste animal fats provide the majority of non-food-crop feedstocks for biofuel production, and are limited “new technologies will need to be commercialised to expand non-food-crop biofuel production”. In other words imaginary, or possible, technologies will have to rescue us again.
c) Use of biofuels increases the so called ‘metabolic rift’ which comes with industrial agriculture. Materials and nutrients are taken from the soil and dispersed into the atmosphere, or become waste in another place – where they may decay into methane, another GHG.
d) Biofuels may lead to indirect land-use change. That is when food crops in one part of the world are directed to biofuels, and farmers elsewhere try to capitalise on the potential shortage of food crops by expanding into forests, or using agriculture that released soil stored GHG.
Through the interlinked systems, biofuels have the potential to make things worse.
Farming, or extracting, these fuels, can: require fertile land and increase the price of food by taking land away from food production; dispossess small farmers, forest dwellers, and dependent labour from land (increasing food problems); bring about destruction of old growth forests (increasing CO2 emissions); decrease biodiversity lowering ecological resilience; and increase systemic vulnerability to plant disease through monocropping.
A suppressed or confidential World Bank report leaked to the Guardian in 2008 stated that “Biofuels have forced global food prices up by 75%”. Robert Bailey a policy adviser at Oxfam, remarked at the time:
Political leaders seem intent on suppressing and ignoring the strong evidence that biofuels are a major factor in recent food price rises… While politicians concentrate on keeping industry lobbies happy, people in poor countries cannot afford enough to eat.Aditya Chakrabortty Secret report: biofuel caused food crisis. The Guardian 4 Jul 2008
Dr David King the UK Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor from 2000 to 2007 said:
It is clear that some biofuels have huge impacts on food prices… All we are doing by supporting these is subsidising higher food prices, while doing nothing to tackle climate change.”Aditya Chakrabortty Secret report: biofuel caused food crisis. The Guardian 4 Jul 2008
In 2010 it was said that:
One-quarter of all the maize and other grain crops grown in the US now ends up as biofuel in cars rather than being used to feed people, according to new analysis which suggests that the biofuel revolution launched by former President George Bush in 2007 is impacting on world food supplies.”John Vidal 2010 One quarter of US grain crops fed to cars – not people, new figures show. The Guardian 23 January
Lester Brown, the director of the Earth Policy Institute, was reported as saying:
The grain grown to produce fuel in the US [in 2009] was enough to feed 330 million people for one year at average world consumption levels… By subsidising the production of ethanol to the tune of some $6bn each year, US taxpayers are in effect subsidising rising food bills at home and around the worldJohn Vidal 2010 One quarter of US grain crops fed to cars – not people, new figures show. The Guardian 23 January
Other reports which suggest even more problems. Gro Intelligence, argues that the calories in biofuel production resulting from current and future policies could feed 1.9 billion people annually. The invasion of Ukraine, and the resultant shortage of foodstock sharpened the debate and it was alleged that close to 36% of US corn may be produced for biofuel and 40% of soy went into biodiesel. Another article suggests that a 50% reduction in grain for biofuels in the US and Europe would compensate for the loss of all of Ukraine’s grain exports
But of course there are different opinions. Rob Vierhout, the secretary-general of ePURE, the association of the European renewable ethanol and related industries attacks:
the allegation that millions of people were starving due to EU biofuel policies. Not a single scientific paper over the past two years gave credence to that theory. The Commission’s own report earlier this year on the historical and future price impacts of EU biofuels policy suggested that the impacts had been negligible, an order of magnitude below what the NGO campaigners have claimed. Major contributions to the field this year include a World Bank paper concluding that oil is responsible for two thirds of price increases…
anti-biofuels campaigners have for the past six months focused on an allegation by IISD that biofuels cost EU taxpayers €10 billion annually…. We and our members have tried for a year to have meaningful and scientifically-relevant dialogue with IISD’s biofuel researchers, and we have pointed out dozens of factual and methodological errors in their work, as well as their constant failure to secure meaningful peer review…. They give the results that their clients order and then try to justify those results through manipulation of data and highly selective use of facts.Rob Vierhout 2013. Take an honest look at ethanol! Euractiv 2 September
Seventy thousand people owe their jobs to the EU renewable ethanol industry. European biofuels industry now contribute more than €20 billion annually to Europe’s GDP. They are a product made in and for Europe. Every litre of biofuel sold in Europe is a litre of reduced fossil fuel demand.Rob Vierhout 2013. Take an honest look at ethanol! Euractiv 2 September
The number of jobs is irrelevant if the industry is harmful. Tom Buis, the chief executive of Growth Energy (Supporting American Ethanol) said:
Continued innovation in ethanol production and agricultural technology means that we don’t have to make a false choice between food and fuel. We can more than meet the demand for food and livestock feed while reducing our dependence on foreign oil through the production of homegrown renewable ethanolJohn Vidal 2010 One quarter of US grain crops fed to cars – not people, new figures show. The Guardian 23 January
Water is also consumed at all stages of biofuel production: in agriculture in manufacture and in the fuel itself. It may be possible to conserve or recycle water, but it may not without adding more energy consumption to the process. Likewise if forests are felled to provide land for growing biofuels, then the local hydrological cycle may be disrupted, and water flow off the land, helping to produce floods, rather than being absorbed.
The problem here is that the systemic logic of the problem is fairly high. Biofuel crops require land and water to grow. There is limited land and water available. Consequently, this land and water either comes from existing agricultural (food producing) land, which lowers food production and thus puts the price of food up, occupies new land and produces lack of biodiversity, or produces food shortages (unless there is massive food over-production). If the land comes from areas which are cheap and supports local farmers, grazers in commoning, then those people may be dispossessed by mass cropping and forced into wage labour, or have to move elsewhere, and again the local price of food, and the amount of human suffering, is likely to increase along with declines in biodiversity and resilience. If the new land comes from forests, or previously unfarmed land then the loss of a carbon sink my eradicate any emissions lowering from using the fuels. If it comes from previously marginal land, then that may generate systemic problems, such as vulnerability to drought, soil loss and so on. The land was probably not being farmed for some reason or other. Yet there is a clear financial incentive for biofuels to continue.
For what it is worth Exxon remarks:
Many peer-reviewed papers in the scientific literature suggest that the direct life cycle GHG emissions are lower than fossil fuels but that indirect consequences of first generation biofuel development, including changes in forest and agricultural land use change, may result in higher total GHG emissions than petroleum-derived fuelsExxon Newsroom 2018 Advanced biofuels and algae research: targeting the technical capability to produce 10,000 barrels per day by 2025. 17 September
The latest Climate negotiations from the EU, Fit for 55, seems to take note of some of these issues. The section on the transport sector does not seem to mention subsidised ethanol production for automobiles but plentiful charging stations and the deployment of a gaseous hydrogen refueling infrastructure. (The infographic refers to “liquified methane” which seems an odd choice for emissions reduction). It does refers to shipping and stimulating “demand for the most environmentally friendly sustainable fuels, particularly renewable fuels of non-biological origin” presumably hydrogen, although whether this is green hydrogen or not is unclear. The main section on biofuels is almost entirely about air transport, so we could perhaps expect that is where the subsidies will go. The discussion says they want to extend “the scope of eligible sustainable aviation fuels and synthetic aviation fuels. For biofuels, the scope is extended to other certified biofuels complying with the RED sustainability and emissions saving criteria, up to a maximum of 3%, and with the exception of biofuels from food and feed crops, which are excluded.”
It might also be useful to make sure transport emissions are low, and that energy efficiency is high so that transport needs less fuel.