Biofuels May Increase Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Greenpeace Reports

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Biofuels, an increasingly common but controversial source of energy. Photo by Steve Jurvetson.

In recent years, the use of biofuels was highly encouraged, as they were considered a greener alternative to fossil fuels. A recent study published by Greenpeace, however, shows how this is not always true. If they are not produced with the right procedures, their impact on the environment can be worse than that of standard fossil fuels, as they could have higher emissions of greenhouse gases.

Biofuels: What are They?

Palm oil is used for biodiesel production. Photo by Adam Jones.

A biofuel is defined as a fuel made from a biomass. The most common example is bioethanol: the alcohol is not made by a chemical synthesis using oil-derived molecules, but is made from the fermentation of crops or of other natural sources. The fermentation is catalyzed by enzymes or micro-organisms. Other examples are the biodiesels: they can be made from natural plants (i.e. sugar cane, soya, palm oil) or from animal fat. Generally the composition of the biodiesels is comparable to the diesel derived from the distillation of oil; in some cases there can be differences, depending on the source and the process used to produce them.

“Green” Fuels

Biofuels are considered “green” fuels for two main reasons: firstly, they are made from natural and renewable sources. In this way, they can help to reduce the use of non-renewable fossil fuels, and supplement ever-increasing energy demand.

Secondly, the emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, associated with biofuel use are lower than those from fossil fuels. This means that they can contribute towards reaching the targets set by the Kyoto Protocol.

Because of these factors, the production – and therefore the use – of biofuels increased dramatically in the last years. Recently published data from F.O. Fitch  showed that the global production of bioethanol in 2010, for instance, was more than 5 times greater than in 2000 (86 vs 17 billions liters). An even more significant upwards trend was observed for biodiesel production, as a more than 20-fold increase was observed in the same period (19 vs 0.8 billions liters).

Biodiesels Use in the European Union

The use of biodiesel for transport in the European Union countries is part of the Renewable Energy Directive (RED-EU) which is being implemented in the EU. It was decided that, by 2020, 10 % of fuels for transport has to come from renewable sources.

At present, biodiesels are already used in every EU country; normally they are mixed with standard diesel, and the blended amount may change, depending on the country.

Greenpeace Study

Between May and June 2011, Greenpeace analyzed diesel samples coming from 9 EU countries (Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, Sweden, The Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Germany), to detect the amount of biodiesel present in each, and the source of the biodiesel itself. Based on these data, they then assessed sustainability – i.e. the impact on the environment.

The results  showed that the majority of samples had a biodiesel content between 5.5 and 7%. The composition analyses showed that biodiesels were made from animal fat, waste oils and/or fats, soya, rapeseed and palm oil; the proportion of each of these sources was different for each country.

Sustainability – Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC)

The data regarding the biodiesel content in the analysed samples were encouraging; in fact, they indicated how the 10% target set for the year 2020 is achievable. The assessment on their sustainability, however, was much less positive.

According to Greenpeace, the EU directives for the production of biodiesels have insufficient sustainability criteria. On the positive side, they impose a minimum reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, they prohibit direct land use change – that is the conversion of carbon-rich areas (i.e. forests or wetlands) into agricultural fields to produce biodiesels. However, Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC) is not included.

With ILUC, a field which is already used for agriculture, for instance to produce food, is converted into biomass cultivation. As a consequence, more space is needed to grow food; normally carbon-rich areas such as forests or wetlands are used for this purpose. This is a way of avoiding the ban on direct land use change, and causes an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

Worse Impact on the Environment?

If the ILUC is taken into account, the greenhouse gas emissions from some biodiesels are not lower than the ones from fossil fuels, but higher. According to some data , this is the case with diesels produced from soya, rapeseed and palm oil, all present in the analysed biodiesels. However, biodiesels from other sources (i.e. sugar cane or maize) still result in a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, even when ILUC is taken into account.

Based on these results, Greenpeace is calling for a change in the policy and in the legislation for biodiesel production in the EU.

Sources

REN21. “Renewable 2011. Global Status Report.” Accessed August 2011.

European Biofuels Technology Platform. “An Overview.” Accessed August 2011.

Greenpeace. “Fuelling the flames. Biodiesels test. How Europe’s biofuels policy threatens the climate.” Accessed August 2011.

J. Ranking. “Report slams EU biofuel policy.” Accessed August 2011.

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