Are bio fuels really that green?

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We are all aware of ‘biofuels‘ these days, you can’t fill up with fuel at a petrol forecourt without seeing the bio-diesel pump. It is we have been told the next great saviour of the fuel industry. Recent statements by the UK Government however have some rather disturbing news in this direction.

The UK’s  promise to more than double its use of biofuels by 2020 is apparently “significantly” adding to worldwide carbon emissions. Last year Britain signed up to a European Union directive compelling the country to use biofuels to provide 10 per cent of total energy in transport by 2020, as part of a National Renewable Energy Action Plan.

This policy is proving counter-productive and according to the Government the greenhouse emissions associated with biofuels are substantially greater than the savings.  The European Commission are being urged to rethink their plan. The admission coincides with a major study published this week which concludes that biofuels will create an extra 56 million tons of CO2 per year – the equivalent of 12 to 26 million cars on Europe’s roads by 2020.

This is because Europe will need to cultivate an area somewhere between the size of Belgium and the Republic of Ireland with biofuels to meet the target, which can only be done through land conversion – and more controversially, deforestation. The work will be on such a scale that the carbon released from the vegetation, trees and soil will be far greater than those given off by fossil fuels they are designed to replace.

The study, from the Institute for European Environmental Policy, found that far from being 35 to 50 per cent less polluting, as required by the European Directive, the extra biofuels will be twice as bad for the environment.

First generation biofuels, made from crops such as oilseed rape, sugar cane and palms , were once considered a solution to burning fossil fuels. Such crops, it was argued, would give off the same amount of carbon as they had absorbed when growing – making their use carbon neutral and a key component in reducing global emissions.

There is not enough cultivateable land available to grow them in Europe, so forests in South America and Asia are being destroyed to meet European demand. Although under European rules biofuels cannot be bought from “new” agricultural lands such as these, biofuel businesses have got around this by buying up existing land. Forests are then cut down to make up for the loss of agriculture – a trick known as Indirect Land Use Change (ILUC).

Almost all biofuels used in the UK come from sources outside the EU, and the UK is anticipated to be the largest single importer from outside the community in order to reach its targets.

Time for a swift rethink?

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One thought on “Are bio fuels really that green?

    John Lyle said:
    November 17, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    I think the other issue here is whether we can actually use these fuels without risk to our cars. They are essentially untested in the long term.

    VW exclude their use on the inside of the fuel cap, so how do we know they are safe for any other marque.

    I see them all the time, but I still never dare actually add them to my tank.

    They will only actually sell, if they are cheaper, of higher octane (and as such offer better fuel consumption) for the money and/or endorsed by all of the major manufacturers.

    Until this happens, I can’t see them being adopted widely anyway.

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