First generation biofuels may produce more greenhouse gas than fossil fuels

The debate on the global warming benefits of biofuels continues. The Royal Society of Chemistry has published an interesting article that suggests growing and burning many biofuels may actually raise, rather than lower, greenhouse gas emissions. The article is based on a new study led by Nobel prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen. The findings come in the wake of a recent OECD report, which warned nations not to rush headlong into growing energy crops because they cause food shortages and damage biodiversity.

The study looks at the amount of nitrous oxide produced by farming crops commonly grown for biodiesel feedstock and highlights the impact of nitrogen based fertilizers. For canola biodiesel, which accounts for about 80 per cent of the biofuel production in Europe, the relative warming due to N2O emissions is estimated at 1 to 1.7 times larger than the quasi-cooling effect due to saved fossil CO2 emissions. For corn bioethanol, dominant in the US, the figure is 0.9 to 1.5. Only cane sugar bioethanol – with a relative warming of 0.5 to 0.9 – looks like a viable alternative to conventional fuels.

Crutzen’s study is undergoing open review and some other scientists disagree with his calculations. Regardless of the outcome the OECD report mentioned earlier questions the benefits of first generation biofuels and concludes that governments should scrap mandatory biofuels targets. Once again we need to look at the environmental impact of the whole biofuels lifecycle. If biofuels are to replace a reasonable percentage of fossil fuels in the long term then it appears we need to use more environmentally friendly farming techniques for producing feedstock. What’s the point of using a biofuel if the methods used to grow and produce the fuel cause more damage to the environment than you prevent by using using the final product?

Source: Royal Society of Chemistry

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