Friday, October 23, 2009

Biofuels: UN cites the good, the bad, the ugly

There's petroleum and there's biofuel. They can do much of the same thing, but they're really quite different, especially in their climate impacts.

As with much in life, it just ain't simple.

That's particularly the case with biofuels, which are playing an increasing role in the Hawaii energy picture. There's still sugar being converted into energy on Maui. There's talk of growing cane for ethanol and electricity on Kauai. And research into growing crops like Jatropha for biodiesel. There's research into oil from algae. And more

The hype has been that:

1) You get a severe climate result when you suck oil or bulldoze coal out of the ground and burn it—dumping a huge load of carbon into the atmosphere; and that,

2) Biofuel is much better--at least carbon neutral. It's made from growing products, so that it sucks up atmospheric carbon as it grows, and releases it back when it is burned.

Biofuels breathe in, and breathe out. Presumably the climate effect is nil. And that's good, right?

Not so fast, says a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme's
Division of Technology, Industry, and Economics, Sustainable Consumption & Production Branch.

“They (biofuels) are characterized by some as a panacea representing a central technology in the fight against climate change. Others criticise them as a diversion from the tough climate mitigation actions needed or a threat to food security,” says the preface to the full 120-page report, Assessing Biofuels.

It is available here.

And a summary here.

This is not new research, but rather a very extensive literature review, aimed at trying to get a handle on biofuels. A key conclusion: this issue is complicated, so don't make casual broad-brush assumptions.

Some of the identified problems with crop-based fuels: They divert us from carbon-negative energy technologies; they divert crop production from needed food resources to fuel; many of them have their own environmental issues like soil runoff, energy intensive fertilizer use, extensive water use and so forth; and some may not be as carbon neutral as they seem.

For instance, if peat-lands and tropical forest are cleared for biofuel farming, the carbon released in that clearing may far-outweigh reduced net carbon emissions. This is a key objection to some oil palm production.

There are many, many reasons to be cautious about blanket support for biofuels, but the report also identifies another piece of the puzzle that discourages blanket opposition. We are now only working with the first generation of biofuel technology, and future biofuels may be much more environmentally acceptable than the worst of the current crop.

“Researchers are already studying advanced biofuels from sources such as algae or the natural enzymes used by termites to dissolve wood into sugars. These second or third generation technologies will require their own life cycle assessments,” the report says.

Meanwhile, for first-generation biofuels, Hawai'i can kick itself in the collective butt. The best of the best in terms of greenhouse gas savings is bioethanol from sugar cane, the crop we have nearly wiped off our landscape. (Sugar has its own issues, like high fertilizer demand.) By contrast, corn, soy and oil palm biofuels can range from greenhouse positive to dramatically negative, depending on how and where they're grown.

A key message of the UN report: Neither should you be kneejerk dazzled by biofuel, nor should you automatically reject the stuff.

It suggests a number of paths to improving things. Among them: identifying and reducing specific biofuel crop issues; using waste more efficiently; and noting that “stationary use of biomass—to generate heat and/or electricity—is typically more energy efficient than converting biomass to a liquid fuel. It may also provide much higher CO2 savings at lower costs.”

© Jan TenBruggencate

1 comment:

zzzzzz said...

This also suggests that reducing consumption, whether of biofuels or coal or petroleum, should always be a goal.

It's probably a lot easier, for example, to reduce gasoline consumption by driving less, getting a smaller car, or keeping tires inflated than by switching to biofuel.