Is production of biofuels a good thing? There are some potential benefits and some problems in producing biofuels, as we have discussed in a previous article.
However, recent comments by Jean Ziegler, the UN rapporteur on the right to food, and some recent studies on contributions of biofuel production to greenhouse gas emissions made us think the topic worth revisiting.
Ziegler has condemned biofuels as a “crime against humanity” since it pushes prices higher for food. Record prices for corn and soybeans demonstrate the effects on domestic markets. You may have even noticed your favourite breakfast cereal has been reformulated with less corn in your corn flake. But it is the world’s poor who will suffer most as food production gives way to the more lucrative market for energy crop production.
This condemnation was calculated to shock — and shock it did. How can one support production of biofuels after that? Well, the damage perpetrated on the world’s poor by global warming may be an even greater “crime against humanity.” Consider UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s comments that global warming is the challenge that will define us and our era. If biofuels can reduce carbon emissions and global warming, wouldn’t it be wrong not to produce them?
Biofuels tend to burn less efficiently than fossil fuels, and fossil fuels are required for planting and harvesting crops, for conversion of plant biomass into ethanol or biodiesel, and for distribution (there are no ethanol pipelines). However, photosynthesis by crops during growth removes CO2 from the atmosphere, so, on balance, use of biofuels means less carbon emissions. Great!
But hold on. Growing crops for fuel production will require fertilizer, energetically expensive to produce. Further, a portion of the nitrogen applied is converted to N2O, a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. A recent study concluded that, in terms of global warming potential, increased N2O emissions from production of biofuels would more than offset the gains in reducing CO2 emissions.
We’d be better off burning fossil fuels, and that is without even considering the deforestation and use of marginal lands required to sustain production of biofuels, or the loss of food crops. Not great!
Where do we come down on biofuels? As currently produced, production of biofuels is not environmentally friendly or sustainable. Some plants return greater bang for the buck than corn or soybeans and could make the cost benefit tip in favour of producing biofuels.
Algae actually appear the best bet. They are cheap to grow, can grow on wastewater, do not require much energy investment, and can be used to scrub CO2 from point sources.
However, industrial scale growth of algae for biofuels will require a dramatic shift in our psyche and infrastructure. We know how to grow corn, and we have the agricultural infrastructure to do it. We can’t blame farmers for growing profitable crops. Current subsidies to ethanol producers all but ensure this will be the direction of biofuels production. But if asked, “Is this the direction we should go?” we think the answer is no.
Andrew Laursen is an assistant professor at Ryerson University, studying ecosystem ecology. Sophia Dore is an environmental scientist with Conestoga-Rovers & Associates, an environmental consulting company.