Biofuels: The Good, The Bad and The Uncertain


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Biofuel crops, like oil palm grown in Indonesia, has led to more deforestation. Scientists are still studying the effects of bioenergy on carbon stocks.


By Angela Dewan

Last decade, biofuels were talked about among world leaders like the deus ex machina of the world’s carbon emissions problem. By the middle of the decade, Europe and the United States led biofuel policy, setting ambitious targets to use cleaner energy in the name of climate change mitigation.

Leaders were soon criticised for their hastiness when it was realised that primary forest in the Brazilian Amazon and in Indonesia, among other places, was being logged to harvest biofuel crops or to make way for agriculture that had been displaced because of biofuel plantation expansion. Some believed this contributed to an increase in food prices, threatening food security for the poor.The other major concern was whether biofuels could, in fact, reduce carbon emissions, considering the various levels of carbon they emit when being harvested as crops.

Current European policy aims at converting 10 percent of its current transport energy to bioenergy by 2020, and the United States plans to use 36 billion gallons (136 cubic metres) of biofuel for the same purpose by the year 2022. But policy here has come before the science. Experts are still studying how effective biofuels are at reducing greenhouse gases.

Yoon Hyung, Kim, from the Korea Rural Economic Institute, looked at the impact of US and European biofuel policies on forest carbon around the world.

He looked at how such policies influenced land use, and found that if Europe and the United States successfully implemented their policies in the next 30 years, 23 million to 26 million hectares of forest land would be lost, adding 1.2 billion to 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere.

“What was interesting was that we found that Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa ended up gaining forestland and increasing carbon stocks because of the way rent and timber prices affect production in those regions,” Kim said.

In Europe, 8-9 percent of current energy comes from renewable sources. Fifty percent of that energy comes from wood. As Europe is aiming to use around 20 percent renewable energy by 2030, the demand for wood-based energy is expected to more than double to around 700 million cubic metres, according to Hans Verkerk, of the European Forest Institute.

“Basically, increasing the harvest level for bioenergy could lead to a stronger decline in the European forest sink,” Verkerk said.

“There are some positive impacts, like additional revenue and employment, but the negative side is the effect on biodiversity, especially for the species that depend on the trees for a habitat.”

Even though there is still much doubt about the extent to which biofuels can reduce carbon emissions, long-term biofuel production plans remain in place. Scientists are trying to keep up with the policy to ensure funding goes to effective production and does not fuel an increase in carbon emissions.

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Topic(s) :   Deforestation