Environmental Impact of Biofuels





Biofuels came into being primarily because of the increasing environmental impact of oil drilling. Intended to lower the levels of greenhouse gas emissions, provide a domestic fuel source for vehicles, and add to our renewable energy resources. However, The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations claim that there have been significant unintentional impacts that have been observed from the use of the biofuels. These impacts have hugely affected the biodiversity, land, water, and air of surrounding communities resulting in many concerns being raised by government and private organizations. It must be noted that the production of biofuels affects agricultural production and food markets.

Irony of Biofuel Use

Originally crops were grown and used as biofuels in order to offset the greenhouse gas emissions of fossil fuel and geothermal power plants. This is effectively done by the direct removal of carbon dioxide from the ambient air. The FAO stated in its 2008 report entitled The State of Food and Agriculture that scientific researchers have observed that varied feedstock cultivated for biofuels have had diverse effects on the environment. The report claimed that, “Depending on the methods used to produce the feedstock and process the fuel, some crops can even generate more greenhouse gases than fossil fuels.”

The report clearly advises that the substance nitrous oxide, otherwise known as NOx, is being emitted from fertilizers that have been sprayed on the land to assist the growth of crops. This gas will have significantly more harmful global warming effects than carbon dioxide as it can be as high as 300 times more powerful as a greenhouse agent. FAO’s report asserts that as greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere by both indirect and direct land use, changes in the land chemistry can also occur especially when biofuel production is increased or when crops are rotated carelessly.

The FAO insists that the concentration of emissions released during the cycle of production needs to be taken into serious consideration. There should be a balance observed between the direct greenhouse gas savings, the potentially important by-products and gas emissions during production. Take note that the balance will vary between classes of biofuels and the types of feedstock used as well as the different methods and location of production.

What Studies Have Shown

Scientific researchers have stated that the production of first-generation biofuels from current feedstock can cause reduced emissions well in the range of 20-60 percent. This amount is relative to fossil fuels granting that the most effective, efficient, and safest systems are utilized. Assumptions are also made that carbon release due to changing land use are not considered.

One of the most noticeable impacts of the production of biofuels is the variation in the use of the land. The FAO states that the effect will be apparent at the start of the production cycle and that any variation in land use will take several years of production to “pay back” damage. In several cases the use of fossil fuels was considered more safe and efficient than biofuels. This will be particularly true if grasslands, peatlands, savannahs, and rainforest are utilized for production of biofuel crops instead of producing crops specific to that environment.

Furthermore there have been a few studies that have found that a considerably higher amount of carbon is isolated by changing cropland into forest. According to the same report if the aim of the policies supporting biofuel production is to mitigate global warming then the government would do well to focus on fuel efficiency, forest restoration and conservation.

The FAO states that energy conservation and efficiency are just as vital and ultimately will be more effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions than biofuel production. To quote the FAO, “A comprehensive understanding of the relevant issues, including land-use change, and proper assessment of greenhouse gas balances are essential in order to ensure that bioenergy crops have a positive and sustainable impact on climate-protection efforts.” Also the report states that, “In addition to the impacts of biomass production for biofuels on greenhouse gas emissions, biofuel processing and distribution can also have other environmental impacts.”

Community Impacts

A major consideration in determining the advantages of the production of biofuels is the productivity of the crops and the land, as well as the improvement of the farming techniques utilized and increases in yields while managing off gassing from fertilizers. The FAO issues a dire warning with regards to the effects of cultivating crops as feedstock for biofuel. These crops may end up replacing other food crops thereby resulting in a higher requirement for unused land that will be used solely for the cultivation of new feedstock. This phenomenon is more commonly called ‘land grabbing’, which could result in huge areas of land being used causing more harm than good. Major impacts on local and global food markets can occur as well resulting in higher prices and mass famines.

Consider the agricultural expansion of Brazil where sugar cane production is expected to double reaching more than 10 million hectares over the next few years. Together with this increased production there is also an increased requirement for soybean farmlands that can result to the displacement of lands that are normally used for other types of crops and livestock pasture areas. Mono crop farms like this can result in permanent damage to soil, excessive pollution from fertilizers and pesticides, and impacts on food supply including diversity of foods and price.

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