We’ve gotten it wrong: Biofuels don’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions – report

29 Jan 2015

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The growth of crops for biofuels is detrimental to the environment in some ways, and only adds to the food crisis around the world, a report released this morning suggests.

Tim Searchinger and Ralph Heimlich’s ninth instalment of Creating a Sustainable Food Future reports the vast majority of biofuel projects backed by the US and EU are counter productive – pushing up food prices, reducing land to grow crops for eating, and doing little to reduce global warming.

The report reveals the majority of calculations that deduce bioenergy is the way to go to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are simply incorrect, not taking into account the carbon dioxide generated by the burning off of these crops to create fuel. 

Massaging the figures

“Large estimates of bioenergy potential ‘double count’ biomass, leading to a double counting of carbon,” reads the report.

It says that given most of the world’s land grows crops each year, diverting segments of these into a process of biofuel creation doesn’t, in fact, generate any more crops. And even if it did, it wouldn’t make the effect that many are claiming. Worse still, by siphoning off swathes of crops for fuel creation, it drives up food prices.

“In fact, burning biomass emits at least a little more carbon dioxide than fossil fuels for the same amount of generated energy,” the report reads.

Examples given to show the inefficiency of crops currently grown for biofuels include fast-growing sugar cane in the tropics (converting only around 0.5pc of solar radiation into sugar, and just 0.52pc into ethanol) and maize in the US state of Iowa (converting 0.3pc of solar radiation into biomass, and 0.15pc into ethanol).

Claims are out of date

The World Resources Institute, a global research organisation based in Washington, published the latest Creating a Sustainable Food Future.

The institute’s president Andrew Steer told The New York Times, “I would say that many of the claims for biofuels have been dramatically exaggerated.

“There are other, more effective routes to get to a low-carbon world.”

The report suggests that rather than pursue this seemingly futile biofuel approach, the world should embrace solar photovoltaic systems.

“On three-quarters of the world’s land, (these) systems today can generate more than 100 times the useable energy per hectare than bioenergy is likely to produce in the future, even using optimistic assumptions,” it claims.

What governments can do is pursue policies that encourage solar energy development, allowing policy-makers to “catalyse far more energy growth in a manner fully compatible with a sustainable food future.”

Harvesting crops image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt is senior communications and context executive at NDRC. He previously worked as a journalist with Silicon Republic.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com