Biofuels have been a major part of the supposed energy transition. They have been the subject of much investment, governmental legislation and subsidy, to make them attractive and sometimes to force consumption.
The fundamental problem is that as biofuels work through burning, they produce greenhouse gas emissions now, and do not lower greenhouse gas emissions (even in theory) until the emissions released in their production are recovered through regrowth, and it is generally much quicker to burn material than to grow it back again. They may never reduce emissions if they do not replace other worse sources of emissions and pollution, rather than being used in addition to fossil fuels, or producing no incentive to lower fossil fuel consumption.
That biofuels fulfil either of these conditions is dubious, but they can also produce systemic problems:
- Biofuels may take a lot of energy and land to produce and transport repeatedly to places of consumption, so their EREI could be extremely low while pollution could be high.
- Farming, or extracting, these fuels, can: require fertile land and dispossess small holders, forest dwellers, and dependent labour from land (increasing food problems); bring about destruction of old growth forests (increasing CO2 emissions); decrease biodiversity; increase systemic vulnerability to plant disease; and increase price of food by taking land away from food production.
- Using genetically modified algae for biofuels could risk ecological damage, if the algae escape.
- Using organic waste, usually for the production of biogas, may remove natural fertilisers from the soil, and increase the energy consumed in making replacement chemical fertilisers. It may also lead to the deliberate production of ‘waste’ to fuel the biofuel plant – as with wood chipping.
- Using plastics as sources of biofuels, is simply using fossil fuels in a rather complex way.
- Harmful, or dubious biofuels may be used to boost the illusion of a progressing renewable energy transition, and take attention away from more beneficial technology.
All of these factors make the ecological and social situation worse.
To solve the ‘burning problem’ people and organisations have proposed using biofuels with Carbon Capture (BECCS), but this assumes carbon capture is feasible and works, and that we can store or use the extracted gas without risk of releasing it. This seems to be largely an argument from fantasy.
This does not mean that all biofuels are useless in all circumstances. There are small scale exceptions when locally made biofuels can be used locally to add power to villages which are not connected to reliable electricity, or who suffer from a lack of traditional fuels, but even then replanting trees, and regenerative agriculture may be necessary as well.